West Caldwell Tech is one of a dozen state high schools eligible for some of the nearly $67 million in federal grant money due to its failure to measure up to No Child Left Behind criteria, state officials said.
The school has until mid-April to apply for a three-year grant of $50,000 to $2 million per year, officials said.
To be eligible for the money, the school must submit a plan to the state Department of Education, detailing what it would do. Options included in the grant's guidelines include closing the school, turning the school into a charter school and replacing the principal, much of the staff and reorganizing.
"Schools that are consistently failing, will not be allowed to continue to fail," said Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
John Valickas, vice principal at West Caldwell Tech, said he did not know whether the school would apply for any of the grant money.
He said that the school is making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law. He added that any lagging scores could be because the school has a high number of students with special needs who, under the federal law, must pass the same tests as their peers.
"I don't know what criteria they used," Valickas said.
The $66.7 million in grant money comes from the U.S. Department of Education. New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Brett Schundler said in a statement that the federal money provides "a unique opportunity to transform New Jersey schools that exhibit the greatest need for fundamental change."
The other high schools eligible for the grant money are located in Camden, Trenton, Newark, Irvington, Asbury Park, Jersey City and Roselle.
In order to be eligible for the grant money, a school must have ranked among the lowest five percent in the state on the High School Proficiency Assessment tests and have a student body in which 20 percent or more students come from families whose incomes fall below the poverty line, Vespucci said.
Dire as it sounds that West Caldwell Tech is eligible for the grant money, Vespucci stressed that it is not necessarily an indictment of its educators.
"They may have been putting forth their best effort, but there may be something about the mix of the way the school is operated that is not bringing about success," he said.
The No Child Left Behind law has a provision allowing failing schools to restructure, meaning that all the administrators and some of the staff could be replaced or the school shut down entirely with the students transferred to higher performing schools in the area.
"If people are worried about what the costs of those types of measures would be, these grants could help offset them," Vespucci said.
Vespucci added that it is completely voluntary whether a school applies for any of this federal grant money. However, he warned that under federal law, underperforming schools would be required to boost student performance or face sanctions.
"We need our students to be successful because they're the future or our state economy," Vespucci said. "You can't have a tone of acceptance, you need to have an aggressive approach to the problem."
In February, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo announced a plan to merge the three Essex County vocational schools—West Caldwell Tech, Bloomfield Tech and Newark's North 13th Street Tech—into a new state-of-the-art campus by converting the 7.8-acre United Hospital site in Newark.
The project, which would mostly be paid for through federal grants, would begin in 2012. However, the county, which only owns 40 percent of the hospital, would first need to purchase the remaining portion.
The announcement last week of West Caldwell Tech's classroom difficulties comes on the heels of an announcement in January that James Caldwell High School also earned a failing grade under the No Child Left Behind law. That school is examining its teaching policies, specifically with regard to its lagging special education programs.
Vespucci said all underperforming schools need to do the same.
"Drastic times call for drastic measures," he said.