The New Jersey District That Became a Beacon

When Elizabeth Giacobbe arrived as superintendent of the Beverly City School District in 2011, it was already on New Jersey’s list of troubled districts.

There was little in the way of curriculum, she said. Students sat in one classroom all day and were taught by one teacher, even in middle school. Some teachers were working solely from dated textbooks. Assessment was minimal and underused.

“A lot had to change quickly,” she said. “It had to start at my level. We had to do a better job.”

Today, the picture could not be more different. The district has been officially removed from the state’s “focus” list. It was recognized by the New Jersey Department of Education in 2017 as one of seven Lighthouse Districts that have used a rigorous approach to produce academic success. It was named a National Title I Distinguished School that same year.

And the improvement is being reflected in state assessment scores: In English language arts, Beverly City went from 32 percent proficiency in 2015 to 55 percent in 2018. In mathematics, students went from 15 percent proficiency to 28 percent in that same period. These are vast improvements.

Giacobbe knows there is still work to be done, but says the system is in place to get there. “We created a culture of accountability that had not been here before,” she said.

A great deal went into the turnaround at Beverly City, an urban, single-school district serving roughly 300 students in pre-K through 8th grade.

Giacobbe made staff changes and hired a curriculum director. The middle school was departmentalized. She made use of resources from the state, bringing in coaches in specific academic disciplines. Importantly, she and her staff embraced a data-driven approach to education, using assessment to guide instruction.

“We were able to have some fierce conversations about the expectations we have in our classrooms,” Giacobbe said. “We got a glimpse of what was expected of them. We found out how rigorous we needed to be.”

They used many different tools, but when the New Jersey Department of Education launched edConnectNJ in 2014, a system that offers assessment, data management, instructional resources and curriculum planning, Giacobbe and her faculty embraced it.

Along the way, a great deal of energy was put into educating teachers about the value of assessment and how to use the data to adjust classroom instruction. They grew increasingly sophisticated, introducing peer review to the district assessments so that teachers could learn from one another.

“There was a lot of training for teachers on how to use data to change instruction,” she said. “We made sure they were teaching content that students need to know.”

Ultimately, as state assessment scores started to improve, the turnaround caught the eye of state education officials. Beverly City was removed from the state’s focus list and was named a Lighthouse District, a distinction that rewards schools for setting high standards, using assessment data to identify student needs and providing the proper educational supports.

Giacobbe is now asked to present to groups around the state on how her district drove its transformation. A data-driven approach is always at the top of the list.

“It gave us the tools we needed—it is vital,” she said. “To drive the instruction that students need, teachers have to have data.”