Schooling is a big part of family life anywhere in the world. It takes time to grasp all the details of the education system even in your own home country. Expats moving to New Jersey have just as much need to really understand how the local school system works. What follows is an overview of all the main facets of New Jersey public schools.
State public schools are those provided and regulated by the state of New Jersey government and operate using public funding. New Jersey public schools are free to attend (do not charge for tuition) and are secular. They are open for enrollment to any school-aged children residing within the school’s catchment area. This includes those with disabilities and English language learners.
Types of Public Schools
There are different types of public schools. These can include:
- Traditional schools: a regular or conventional public school with a standard curriculum;
- Vocational or technical schools: public schools that focus on skill developments to meet career goals. These are usually specialist high schools in NJ;
- Magnet schools: public schools that follow a theme such as performing arts, science and technology etc. They supposedly offer specialized programs that draw a more diverse student population than otherwise. Magnet schools support the belief that all students have certain interests and talents that are better cultivated in this type of school environment.
- Charter schools: These are technically public schools as they use funding from the state government to operate. However, they are privately run, using their own ‘charter’ rather than the standard way public schools are operated. They are usually setup to offer an alternative to conventional schools for varying reasons.
How Public Schools Are Funded
New Jersey Public schools and those from other US states, are largely funded from individual municipality (town) funds-around 56% in NJ (2012). These funds are raised mostly from the town’s own local property taxes. A proportion of public school funding is contributed by the state (39%) and federal (5%) governments as well.
When the municipality has low property tax values, e.g. in poor areas, then the state may have to contribute significantly more, under special arrangements. Due to big variances between areas in how much tax is obtained, school budgets in poorer areas in general are worse off than wealthier areas. A lower tax dollar base will likely result in less money being available to invest in schools. This is one factor that helps create differences in school performance and effectiveness. It is no accident that the best performing schools are often in the wealthiest areas.
Education Funding Spent in New Jersey versus other states
New Jersey spends approx. $18k per student head on education in public schools in 2015. This is the 2nd highest amount in the entire country. New York is the only state to consistently reach 1st place, spending around $20k per head over the last few years. This is well above the national average of ~$11k. Education in New Jersey Public schools has a very good reputation, unlike many other US states e.g. Florida.
How New Jersey Public Schools rate against other Countries
While the US is rated down the list of world countries somewhat at 14th best educational system, Australia was rated at 15th highest, one place below (2014). ^ Various states rank quite differently from each other to make up the overall average. Massachusetts has ranked No.1 in many facets of education such as reading and science for some years. New Jersey has been rated 2nd highest in the nation in reading and overall education quality (2014).
^Pearson Index 2014
How New Jersey Public Schools Are Structured
Public schools cover basic grades from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Pre-Kindergarten may or may not be available as well, depending on the individual school district.
New Jersey public schools are most commonly structured into:
- Elementary schools covering either Grades PK-5 or K-5
- Middle schools covering Grades 6-8
- High schools covering Grades 9-12.
However, there are several minor variations on this structure, usually made to suit the needs of the district. Here are some examples:
- In larger towns, sometimes Pre-K and Kindergarten classes are covered at one school, and elementary schools cover only Grades 1-5.
- In smaller towns, they may combine elementary and middle school grades to cover Grades K-8. This reduces the need for a separate school for middle school and is more manageable for small populations. Many small to medium-sized private schools have similar structuring.
- Some towns combine middle school and high school into one school. In this case, they may operate as ‘different structures’ within the school, even though it is one campus.
- Sometimes towns break their elementary schools into two groups: one to serve Grades K-2, and one to serve Grades 3-5 (or 3-6).
There is no single way that you will find public schools set up in NJ. Each district makes decisions for themselves on what best suits their population needs.
How That Compares to Australia and UK
Kindergarten class is the first compulsory class in NJ. This is equivalent to Kindergarten or Prep class in Australia. This is equivalent to Year 1 in the UK public education system. The last grade in NJ public school is 12th Grade. Once 12th grade is completed, students can apply for university (mostly termed “college”). This is comparative to Year 12 in Australia and Year 13 in the UK.
Public schools (except for charter schools) are accountable locally to the area school district whose jurisdiction they fall under. It is the school district who operates and manages all the schools, appoints their own staff, devise curriculum and make operational decisions. Each school district is run by a voluntary Board of Education (BOE). The size of a school district can vary. Often there is one school district per township or sometimes one district serves a small group of townships, if they have small populations.
It will depend on the town’s own resources and population size whether their school district can operate their own elementary, middle and/or high school (s). If a town can’t afford to fund all the schools required, this is usually because the population base is too low. This means the property tax base is too low to fund the infrastructure needed.
The Board of Education
The Board of Education (BOE) of a school district is made up of local people. These are usually voted into their positions by the town’s population. They hold voluntary positions, except the Superintendent of the School District who is the chief operating officer of the district. Together the Superintendent and BOE make policy decisions for the district, set the budget, make curriculum changes and staffing decisions.
School districts are however expected to follow the school curriculum laid out by NJ Department of Education, which provides a significant part of their funding. However, it is up to the district to implement the curriculum as they see fit. The BOE sets individual school start, finishing times and vacation dates. It also controls school bus transport, which is often provided free to students.
Shared Schooling and Sending Relationships
Towns with the insufficient resources will need to set up a ‘sending-receiving’ agreement with another town’s school(s). Parents are usually not asked for any schooling fees under this arrangement. The town’s own funds derived mostly from property tax income, would usually cover the expense for attendance at the shared out-of-town school.
How the arrangement works depends a lot on whether the receiving town has existing capacity to take students. It can also depend on whether a school must purpose-build or expand their setup to manage both town’s students. Some schools like Princeton High School are quite large and take a few extra students from a small neighboring town. The Princeton Borough would have primary management of this school.
Regional Public School Districts
Sometimes small towns share a high school or both a middle school and high school with other towns. In these cases, there may need to be a central school built to cater for this group of municipalities. This occurs when none of the towns have enough resources to operate their own school individually. These are usually called regional schools, and will feature a different name to reflect the shared region they serve. The word regional just means it covers more than the one town that the school resides in.
So, hence in very small towns, they can be served by two school districts:
- one for the schools within the town boundaries; and
- one for the school(s) they share with other towns.
The regional schools are not actually run or operated by one town but are shared amongst different municipalities. These can also vary in their arrangement or structure.
For example: Washington Township and Westwood Borough in Bergen County share a middle and high school as a regional school district. The middle school is in Washington Township which takes students from both towns. The high school though is in Westwood and takes students from both towns. Sometimes the shared schools are just in one place like in the example below.
Attendance at New Jersey Public Schools
Age of Enrolment
By law, students must start school in NJ by age 6. Public schools in New Jersey will usually accept children into kindergarten though, if they have reached 5 years of age by a specific cut-off date. This is set near school year start dates. Cut-off dates are determined by the local school district and therefore vary by district. Most cut-off dates are set at either September 1st or October 1st.
Registration and Proof of Residency
To enroll, parents or guardians must first prove residency within the school district in most cases. Up to four proofs of residency are sometimes required by a typical school district. Each school district sets out its own requirements. Once residency is affirmed, then usually registration (enrolment) can proceed. There is a lot of paperwork required to be completed for registration. Many documents are also needed including prior immunization histories (in English), previous school records, birth certificate or Passport for each child being enrolled (originals), etc.
How do I know which public school we attend?
In most cases, the location of your address determines which public school you can attend. 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.
In areas with magnet systems, there is some flexibility to attend a school outside the normal neighborhood catchment area. For a local school district, e.g. Montclair, NJ, students must live in the township borders but can nominate to enroll in any of the schools in the district, if they meet age requirements. Other magnet schools cater for a broader catchment area due to offering a specialized education services e.g. a county technical or vocational school.
Interdistrict Choice Program (Public School)
In New Jersey, there is now some flexibility in choosing a public school outside of your resident school district. The Interdistrict School Choice Program, initiated recently, allows parents to apply for their child to attend a different school in a ‘choice’ district. Not every NJ County currently has ‘choice’ districts available but most do.
Choice districts are obligated to use the same enrollment criteria used for resident students. However, if the number of ‘choice’ seats in a district is less than that the number of students applying, a lottery is held to determine which students applications are accepted.
Parents wishing to proceed with this program need to submit a notice of intent to participate, usually near the end of the calendar year e.g. late November. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be sent before the year ends. The full process for applying for Choice districts can be found on the Department of Education website.
Other Means of Choosing Schools Outside-District
There are other means of sending your child to an out-of-district public school i.e.one outside the town you reside in. These include:
- Attend a neighboring town public school that accepts fee-paying students. Very few schools do this but it is worth investigating the option. Two public school districts in NJ that reportedly accept outside students include Glen Ridge and Mendham. Schools that do this seem not to widely advertise the fact. Fees are often quite expensive and comparable to some private schools.
- Attend a county vocational/technical public school. These are magnet high schools that are available in most counties in NJ that only take students from their own county on a competitive entry basis. They offer a range of vocational and technical classes from Grades 9-12 and often highly rated amongst New Jersey public schools. Applications are submitted a long way ahead. Schools may offer high levels of AP classes and subject availability, teaching and other resources to assist students to follow different pot-secondary career paths. These may include college degrees, technical certification at vocational schools and combinations of both
- Attend a Charter school. Entry to charter schools is usually limited to the school district they serve however, out-of-district placements can sometimes be obtained through a lottery system. Entry requirements are set by individual schools and can vary.
How New Jersey Public Schools Operate
A Typical Academic Year in New Jersey Public Schools
The typical school year runs from early September to mid-June and is split into two semesters. Each semester is split into halves called Marking Periods. The school holidays are very different in the northern hemisphere versus Australian schools in the southern hemisphere. Firstly, summer vacation starts around June and lasts for 9-10 weeks until early September. This is during summer. The other holiday periods include:
- A 2-day holiday for Thanksgiving (last Thursday/Friday in November) which makes a 4-day weekend;
- A winter Holiday break of about 8 days (Christmas -day after New Year’s Day).
- A one-week Spring Break vacation (early April)
There are several special holidays that are recognized throughout the year that include Columbus Day (Oct); Christmas Day; Martin Luther King Day (Jan); Presidents’ Day (Feb); Memorial Day (late May); Independence Day (4th July) and Labor Day (early September). Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also taken as holidays if they fall on a school day.
However, in NJ, Good Friday and Easter Monday are not recognized school holidays. Additional holidays for school children occur due to the NJ Education Convention in November, teacher workshops, and snow days. There are often half-days (called abbreviated days) that occur when teacher-parent conferences are run at the end of marking periods.
New Jersey Public Schools’ Curriculum
School curriculums are required to meet certain state requirements set out by NJ Department of education which include a set of Common Core State Standards In practice, they vary from one school district to the next. Districts do however have some basic consistencies across the state. These can be in many areas from curriculums, assessment approaches, to high school graduation requirements.
These include Math (mathematics equiv.), Language Arts (English equiv.), Social Studies (history, geography and social science equiv.) and Science (general science). These subjects follow district-mandated curriculums, developed based on Common Core Standards in principle. The curriculums of math, science and language arts are similar to school curricula from Australian public school. They probably resemble other countries school curricula during elementary school and somewhat in middle school.
There are however, obvious differences. For instance, US measurement systems such as weight/mass, length/height/width, speed and temperatures, are completely different to those used in most of the world. Sometimes globally accepted concepts are taught in a different order.
Physical education and health are usually mandatory classes, all the way through Grade 1-12. These include basic fitness training, team sports and games, and health education. The latter covers everything from personal hygiene, nutrition and healthy eating, dangers of drugs to some elements of sex education (later grades).
Specific differences in how public school curriculum is organized
Culture & Arts subjects such as Music, Art and World Languages are taught in varying quality and in different levels across districts. Parents shouldn’t assume that each school is the same in this regard. These areas are often the subjects that are cut or reduced in resources if budgets are cut in a school district’s fiscal year.
Spanish is the most common world language. Some schools teach French and Mandarin. Latin is taught in a few public schools. Most New Jersey public schools start world languages in middle school with continuation into high school. Some though start the basics of a limited range of world languages earlier in elementary school.
Math can be split into general mathematics, algebra and geometry streams in middle school, carrying into high school. Here it continues to be taught in increasing complexity through Pre-Calculus, Trigonometry and Calculus.
Social studies covers a range of topics that include US history, limited world history and cultures, ancient history, geography, government and current events. There is a very large emphasis on history, geography, government and civil life in the USA throughout Grades 1-12. World geography seems far less represented than the USA.
Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten
Pre-Kindergarten is aimed at children who are between 4-5 years age. It is only offered in some public schools, not all. The spots available however are usually booked out quite early. Applications can be taken over 1 year in advance so that late arrivals have very little chance of getting a place. In many schools, the limited number of Pre-K spots are also only allocated to children with learning difficulties. This seems to be done proactively so that these children can enter kindergarten in the next year, with the best chance possible of success. Most parents wanting Pre-K classes for their children end up using a private school or preschool to cover pre-K needs.
Kindergarten is often held as half-day classes e.g. a separate morning and afternoon class, which is designed to help children adjust to school life. Many children are able to read prior to starting Kindergarten but it is not a prerequisite. Classes are not structured only around children who can read.
Subject changes over time and choice availability
During elementary school, the curriculum is fairly basic and covers the core subjects, sometimes with a world language but often with some arts subjects.
By middle school, classes can start to be differentiated somewhat in levels of difficulty, in core subjects.
There is also some flexibility with subject choice available, usually with electives. These are usually in the world language and arts areas. Students may get to choose different subjects such as chorus, band, art or technology classes. Schools encourage students to choose their own subjects starting in middle school. This is done with close input from their parents and a guidance counsellor at school.
By high school, core and non-core subjects start to be taught in more specialized classes both in style of curriculum as well as levels of difficulty. Classes are available at different levels of difficulty that range from Honors (Regular), High Honors (High Level), Advanced Placement (Very High Level). Advanced Placement Courses are classes with high academic rigor equivalent to 1st year college classes. Scores from AP classes are one measure used by US colleges to assess entry.
It is considered the student’s basic right in high school, to choose their own subjects, with parent sign off required. This is coordinated with the guidance counselor. The role of the counselor is to guide the student towards their career goal whether they are planning to go onto college or another type of vocational study. Good quality public schools pride themselves in having a wide range of AP classes that support college admission and student career goals.
High schools operate similarly to universities, with a credits system for subjects taken from Grades 9-12. A total minimum number of credits are part of what is required to complete high school. Students attending high school are called freshmen (9th Grade), sophomores (10th Grade), juniors (11th Grade) and seniors (12th Grade).
Assessment and Monitoring School Performance
Schools all use a basic grading system however elementary schools can vary a little in their approaches. Some use a numbering system to indicate progress, while others use a lettering system. Most use a simpler system than middle and high schools, that reflects performance against grade expectations.
Middle schools and high schools’ assessment approach is more academically rigorous. They nearly all use a simple grading system: A (90% plus), B (80-89%), C (70-79%), D (60-69%) for passes and F for fail. Assessments are made throughout the year with a grade provided at the end of each marking period, half-year point, and full-year. Students can be assessed by a mix of different approaches. These can include homework, assignments, projects, quizzes, essays, tests, pop quizzes, labs, reports, group work, classroom participation, behavior and attendance.
Teachers will usually inform students at the beginning of the year how they will be assessed. There is a large amount of variation by subject and teacher in the exact mix of methods used for assessment. Tests that contribute to the student’s total mark can be held both during the marking period and at mile-stone points such as Mid-Year and Final Year.
Many school districts have an online reporting program that provides website based reporting of student’s progress and grades. School reports can be sent via these electronic systems rather than mailed out, depending on the school. Genesis and Skyward are two examples of district software programs used in New Jersey public schools.
Testing by NJ state
State-mandated testing is implemented in all New Jersey public schools from 3rd Grade to 8th Grade every year. In previous years, NJ DOE used the NJASK testing approach. This has been replaced recently with a federally endorsed testing program called PARCC. Testing with the PARCC system still operates from 3rd-8th Grade but also continues into 9th-11th Grade.
NJ like other US states has been implementing this new system for the last two years as a voluntary test program. Up until 2016, students could opt out of the test process. This however is likely to change as the DOE intends it to become mandatory in 2017. PARCC is also being used to replace the previous high school exam required for graduation. Participation rates in PARCC have been very low in many districts in NJ. The entire testing approach has been openly criticized by many parents and remains very controversial.
Matriculation Examinations and University Entry Measurements
US (and NJ) students do not do a national examination such as the Higher School Certificate (HSC) or GSCE examinations. Instead, there are formal exams called SAT and ACT which provide a benchmark tool for colleges to decide if students can gain entrance. SAT and ACT exams are held regularly throughout the year. High school students can enroll in either of these exams when they want, starting from 9th Grade.
US colleges also use other measures to assess a student’s suitability for entry. This includes school academic performance over 11th and 12th Grade, through the student’s Grade Point Average (GPA). The GPA is a calculated score of grade performance over a defined period. Other measures include Advanced Placement course scores. AP scores are marked out of 5, and a 3,4 or 5 is usually required for many universities. Universities in Australia accept either the SAT or ACT as equivalents to the ATAR score received from the HSC.
High School Graduation in New Jersey Public Schools
NJ students do have some standard requirements to meet before graduating. This includes meeting both state and local district requirements. The NJ Department of Education has minimum standards of competency in Math and English that must be proven to be met by the end of 12th Grade.
Up until 2017, a state-administered, final test was required to “pass” high school. In 2017, the state requirements are currently in process of transition in NJ. The ‘new system is planned to kick fully into place by 2021. However, there is some controversy over this. State requirements may change in the future with changing government policy.
The district’s requirements though are usually consistent in most public high schools. These involve meeting standards for attendance, course credits and in many cases, community service goals. Once both state and local requirements are met, students are awarded a High School diploma and are considered graduated.
Sports is a big part of life in New Jersey public schools. Sports are used as part of Phys.Ed. classes throughout the entire school period. However, sports teams that play competitive sport are a much bigger focus, in middle school but particularly in high school.
High-level competitions with other schools exist across a range of sports including football, lacrosse, soccer, hockey, track and field, basketball, baseball, wrestling, swimming and fencing. High school sport gathers a lot of interest from parents and local supporters. A significant number of senior students from highly competitive schools seek and receive sports scholarships to colleges around the US.
Support for the school teams from the best performing sports is often high and is a significant part of school culture. Schools hold pep rallies to cheer on their team, where most of the students attend to encourage their fellow students. Cheerleading is also a major activity and is considered very important to support sports teams such as football. At sports matches, locals may hold tailgate parties in the adjacent parking lot or nearby parent house to celebrate the game prior to going to watch it.
While there are no cross-country race days or swimming carnivals held by US public schools, they do compete solidly against other teams at swim meets and track and field events.
Food is available from most New Jersey public schools via a cafeteria service provided by contracted food caterers. In high schools and middle schools, there is often a specific sit- down cafeteria. In comparison, in smaller schools, if there is no lunch room, a common area such as the gym or hall is used for lunch, and prepared food is brought to the school and served. Seating is usually provided at large tables.
Most schools have a weekly menu available to choose from with a few options available. Food is largely American casual style and can take some getting used to. The advantage is that most meals are hot, which appeals to many kids, especially in colder months.
Nearly all schools use an online account to manage payments, where deposits are made by parents and meal costs are debited from the account. No ordering is required upfront. Children queue to order and receive food in the cafeteria area at lunchtimes. The queues can be long, and take up a lot of the allocated recess time. Some families benefit from reduced cost lunches, based upon income or financial stress.
School buses are very eye-catching as they are coated in iconic yellow paint, seen on TV and portrayed in popular culture. These are organized and operated by the school district’s transportation department. Buses are used in some degree by schools but not all.
The cost of bussing children within a school district is quite significant. Sometimes the cost is so prohibitive, a bussing service is decided against by the district. Most districts have minimum distances from the school required for a student to qualify for bussing. However, in some towns this may be waived. Schools with half-day kindergarten classes may have a half-day pick-up and drop off schedule for both morning and afternoon classes. Children do not pay anything to the bus driver. They just have to know which bus they are catching. Buses are often differentiated by different color coding, numbering or use of different names e.g. Green Fox bus etc.
Buses will usually have a defined route with specific pickup and drop-off points. Students must be at the allotted pickup place to catch the bus. If not there, the bus will leave without the student. For pickups, elementary school students must be pickup by a parent or authorized caregiver. Buses will not drop off an unaccompanied child unless there is a prior arrangement with the school.
New Jersey public schools do not utilize school uniforms. Students may wear casual clothing to school. There are minimum dress standards usually outlined in school regulations. Open shoes such as flip-flops (thongs) are not allowed. Shoes must be closed in for safety reasons. Unlike Australia, there are no prohibitions about going outside without a suitable hat for the sunnier parts of the year.
However, there is a great deal of flexibility for students to wear what they like. Some limitations often exist for clothing such as short shorts, spaghetti strap tops, bare midriffs, bare shoulders, and clothing with political statements. Hats including caps are not allowed to be worn indoors.