|Pamela Garwood, coordinator of the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative discusses student achievement goals with Jennifer Rushton from Field Street School in Penns Grove-Carneys Point.
The Class of 2025 entered kindergarten this year brimming with enthusiasm. Tens of thousands of them charged into New Jersey classrooms.
“They’ll have smiles on their faces,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel at the launch of the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative on Aug. 8. “They love going to school. They love learning.”
But then his tone took a grave turn.
“Although I don’t know their names and I couldn’t possibly predict what’ll to happen to them next month, or next week, or even tomorrow, I know exactly what will happen to that group of 5-year-olds in 2025,” Van Roekel continued. “I can tell you within two percentage points how many will be incarcerated, how many will drop out, how many will become teen parents, and how many will commit suicide.”
Making something change
Van Roekel’s stark reality check, delivered to NJEA’s Priority Schools school leadership teams, captured the essence of what motivates the teachers, educational support professionals (ESP), parents, principals, superintendents, and school board members from the nine school districts and 13 “priority schools” who make up those teams: they want change the statistical fate of the Class of 2025—and of every class that comes before and after them.
“Our students are counting on us, and we cannot let them down,” said NJEA Assistant Executive Director Richard Gray. “We will do everything it takes to make the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative a success.”
NJEA sent invitations to participate in the program to local association presidents in districts that had multiple schools identified under No Child Left Behind as “in need of improvement.” Schools are labeled as in need of improvement if they fail to meet state proficiency targets in two consecutive years.
Schools that opted to apply for the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative had to demonstrate a commitment to include all stakeholders in the school improvement process: teachers, parents, ESP, administrators, the local association, the school board, and the broader community. NJEA UniServ Field Reps also could recommend a school to participate in the application process.
“True change requires everyone’s participation,” said Michael Cohan, the director of NJEA’s Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. “This is not about quick fixes and cosmetic changes. We’re building capacity to help these schools become leaders in providing a 21st-century education.”
Training, planning, collaborating
|Steve Barkley, Executive Vice-President of Performance Learning Systems, assists members of the Priority Schools team from Linden School No. 6. From left: Angela Saluccio, Atiya Perkins, Barkley, and Linda Castaldo.
Developed over the course of more than a year, the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative was formally launched at a three-day training and planning program for the teams held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick that began on Aug 8.
The sessions were led by Steve Barkley, Executive Vice-President of Performance Learning Systems and the author of Instructional Coaching With the End in Mind.
With Barkley’s guidance, the teams began the process of developing long-term goals and benchmarks for the year ahead. Teams analyzed the skills, knowledge, student behaviors, staff behaviors, leadership behaviors, and tools necessary to equip students to succeed in the 21st century.
“What your school does to improve student achievement will happen within your school,” Barkley said. “That’s why we can’t give you the answers—you’ve got to create them.”
NJEA leadership and essential elements
Pamela Garwood, formerly an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division, has been designated as the coordinator of NJEA Priority Schools Intervention and Support. She leads a team of seven NJEA Priority Schools consultants who spend a minimum of one full day per week in their assigned schools to provide guidance and support to the Priority Schools teams.
“The development of school-based teams supported by experts in the field gets at the heart of what NJEA’s vision for Priority Schools is all about,” Garwood said. “True reform comes from the grassroots. It comes from the teachers, support staff, and administrators in the schools and from the community that surrounds and supports those schools.”
Garwood said that the Priority Schools Initiative is a collaborative process that asks for substantial commitment from all participants. Garwood identified the essential elements of the initiative:
- Dedication of an NJEA staff member assigned to develop the program and coordinate training and resource allocation for schools accepted to participate.
- Development of comprehensive assessments to identify the school-level factors that affect school operations.
- Templates and protocols to support goal setting and planning.
- Tools and materials to support reforms that are grounded in research.
- Comprehensive training programs and on-site support to help staff, leaders, members, and members of the respective school communities implement their identified reform plans.
- Data collection and analysis protocols to identify the specific causes of school “failure,” documentation of successful changes, and attribution of the improvements in schools to specific actions.
- Development of a community-organizing strategy to build sustained support for implemented changes that show promise.
“I was a teacher and member of NJEA for 29 years before becoming an employee of NJEA in 2006,” Garwood said. “And I’ve never been prouder of my association than I am now. NJEA has once again shown itself to be a leader in making sure that every child goes to a great public school.”