JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- In this impoverished city across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan's World Trade Center towers, the school system hit bottom four years ago.
Students read 30-year-old textbooks in decrepit, filthy schools that went without repairs or fresh paint for decades. Dropout rates had soared, attendance and standardized test scores plummeted, and some graduates left high school unable to read or write. Corruption and ineptitude among employees ran rampant, and a notorious political patronage system awarded jobs based on who had supported whom in the latest election.
Horrified at how badly the district had degenerated, New Jersey declared it "educationally bankrupt" and in 1989 became the first state in the nation to seize control of a large urban school district.
"It made you want to throw up to see how bad these schools were," says state Sen. John H. Ewing, a co-sponsor of the legislation authorizing takeover. "Some of the people who were running them should be put in jail for what they let happen to the schools."
New Jersey's pioneering rescue mission has placed it at the forefront of a nationwide movement among states, including Maryland, toward intervention in local schools. Increasingly desperate for antidotes to reverse the slide of failing schools, 20 states have approved measures to wrest districts or individual schools from local control.
Maryland's superintendent and school board will begin targeting individual schools for takeover next month, based on continuously worsening student test scores, attendance and dropout rates. The state will "reconstitute" some of the worst schools by rewriting curricula, replacing staff or turning over control to private contractors or universities.
In Jersey City, the state wasted little time launching its wrenching effort to remake the district. Within months of seizing control, the state ousted the local superintendent, Cabinet and school board. A state-appointed team eliminated 117 positions in a reorganization of the bloated bureaucracy, fired more than 100 employees in schools, formally reprimanded or denied scheduled raises to 50 others and uncovered $3 million in misspending for medical benefits to 250 former employees no longer eligible -- three of them dead.
The team rewrote curricula throughout the district, stressing career and college preparation, bought new textbooks and replaced 20 of 36 principals. Schools, some of them a century old, got long-overdue scrubbings, paint, repairs and renovations. Preschool and meal programs expanded dramatically, and the state-run district created adult-education classes, parenting workshops and an elaborate network of social services tailored to help poor families, many of them immigrants in a 30,000-student school system where children speak three dozen languages.
State educators say streamlining the bureaucracy and eliminating waste and inefficiency enabled the appointed administration to embark on a broad array of improvements despite a perennial shortage of cash. Even with the state pumping in as much as $50 million in additional money each year, a Rutgers University study found Jersey City spending totaled $6,144 per pupil in 1992-93 -- $2,065 less than the average for the state's 108 wealthiest districts.
And despite the decisive actions, progress has come slowly and painfully.
Today, four years after the takeover -- the object of an 18-month court battle in which the local district spent $1 million fighting to retain control -- most educators, lawmakers and parents say the state has laid the foundation for resuscitating schools. Student attendance has risen markedly, to more than 90 percent daily, enrollment has climbed about 10 percent and parental participation has increased. But the district still falls far short of state standards in key measures of student test performance and dropout rates.
"Reform's been a long, slow, tedious process," says Senator Ewing, a Republican who is chairman of the state Legislature's Joint Committee on the Public Schools. "Some people think it can be done quickly, but they have no idea what it takes to turn around a school system in this kind of shape."
Senator Ewing, a political ally of Republican Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman, who takes office next month, says he's working with her to extend the state's control of the district by at least two years. Mr. Ewing, like state educators, fears that, if the state returned the district to local control next year as originally hoped, the schools would regress quickly.
Putting 'Kids First'
The blue and white signs appear everywhere -- from the adult-education and preschool classrooms in some of the toughest, most violent housing projects in the region to the mud-colored, four-story converted factory that serves as Board of Eduction headquarters to the lobbies of schools surrounded by chain-link fences.