Walking the halls of the Beverly City School, you can sense the optimism of the teachers, staff, and students. It is obvious this is a place where student achievement is a focus and a goal.

What a difference five years makes.

Just a few years ago, Beverly City, a small pre-K-8 school district in Burlington County, was struggling. More than 70 percent of the district’s 300 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, a hallmark of an economically challenged community.

Only about 40 percent of Beverly City’s students were considered proficient on the NJASK in both math and English language arts. The district was classified as a “focus district” by the New Jersey Department of Education, when it reclassified schools in 2013. (Schools are designated as focus districts, based on their performance on standardized tests and achievement gaps in the schools.) Focus districts also receive assistance from one of the state’s RACs (Regional Achievement Centers), NJDOE offices that are responsible for working with schools to help improve student achievement.

If any district was at the back of the class it was Beverly City. The local school board was determined to move the district forward. The first step was to hire a new superintendent/principal.

In January 2011, after a difficult search, the district hired Elizabeth Giacobbe as an interim superintendent/principal. She became the permanent superintendent/principal in 2012. Giacobbe previously served as a principal in both the Holmdel and Freehold Township districts.

She assessed the district’s situation and was not pleased with the educational progress of the students. She saw a curricula that was far from rigorous, textbooks and technology that were dated, and teachers and staff who were not held accountable. According to Giacobbe, “there was zero written curriculum, teachers did not turn in lesson plans and were rarely observed and there were few working computers.”

She began, with the board’s full support, to put a plan together to increase student achievement.

Since the best way to improve the student performance was to improve the curricula and instruction, the board approved the creation of the position of director of curriculum and instruction. As a result, the curriculum became more rigorous. The district also used aspects of the TeachNJ laws to put some faculty on corrective action plans; the district also won a tenure case.

Teachers’ SGOs (student growth objectives) needed to show a minimum of 1.5 years of growth. In addition, no matter what subject they taught, one of the growth objectives had to be connected to reading comprehension. Giacobbe was similarly held accountable for student achievement in her own merit goals, which were linked to the teachers’ SGOs and student success.

The district focused its resources on upgrading textbooks, as well as its technology, purchasing items like computers and Smart Boards.

Beverly City changed how its sixth through eighth-grade students learn, having them change classes instead of sitting in one classroom all day, to “departmentalize” instruction under highly-qualified teachers. The school also extended the school day, allowing for more instruction time for students.

The district also used data to drive much of the decision-making process. In 2015, Beverly, with the help of the state Regional Achievement Center, implemented baseline and benchmark assessments to provide timely information, which was used to modify instruction to fit student needs. The district joined edConnect, which allowed the NJDOE to view their data and make recommendations. In addition all assessments were used, including PARCC results, to measure trends in the district.

What were the results of all this hard work and effort?

In the first few years of implementing changes the district showed little improvement, and remained a focus district. However from 2015 to 2017, the district began to see results. During that time, the percentage of students in the district who tested at or above grade level nearly doubled. The district was removed from the “focus” status in June 2017 and in the fall of 2017 was recognized for its accomplishments and turnaround by the State Board of Education and honored as one of the state’s first “Lighthouse Districts,” which celebrate districts which “illuminate the path toward academic growth and student success.”

Giacobbe credits the cooperation between the board, and the teachers as well as the administrators, for the district’s achievements. Beverly City’s success is built on leadership, collaboration, and using data. It is truly a district that went from the back of the class to the head of the class.