NJEA Priority Schools Initiative evolves

By LeShaun Arrington, NJEA Communications Consultant

NJEA members and school administrators who are part of the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative (NJEA PSI) spent Saturday, March 7 attending a conference at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick. This was no ordinary conference; a palpable energy radiated from the room.

When the NJEA PSI was launched in 2012, it focused on improving instructional practices by encouraging collaboration through data analysis, job-embedded professional development, a leadership team, resource assistance, and strong professional learning communities. The initiative was established to be a model program where all educators work in a collaborative environment that empowered shared leadership and inspired all students to excel.

School districts and their local associations participate in the initiative in three-year cycles. The collaborative teams at the schools are supported by an NJEA PSI consultant. These are retired educators who work with their teams during and outside of the school day.

The impact of adverse childhood experiences

The goals of the initiative evolved as Amanda Adams, NJEA associate director for Professional Development and Coordinator of the PSI, observed the obstacles that the PSI consultants had to overcome to support their teams. Teachers often expressed how overwhelmed they were with the changing demands from their districts’ central offices, student behaviors and low parental involvement.

About four years ago, Adams met Dave Ellis, a master trainer for ACE Interface at the NJEA Convention. She realized that NJEA members needed to learn about how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect their students, parents and themselves.

Adams determined students’ exposure to trauma had to be addressed through the initiative. To remove the barriers of student learning, healing techniques needed to be incorporated. Improving instructional practices combined with working to remove the barriers by creating healing communities would transform the whole student and increase student achievement.

Addressing social toxicity

As the room buzzed with energy and excitement keynote speaker Dr. Shawn Ginwright walked to the podium. Ginwright is a professor at San Francisco State University, has authored several books, including Hope and Healing in Urban Education and is one of the nation’s leading scholars on African American youth, youth activism and development.

Ginwright spoke about social toxicity. Not only do our students experience social toxins, but educators are exposed to them as well. Some examples of social toxins are insecurities, anxiety, fear and inequality. As educators, Ginwright said we should make sure that we are well and take care of ourselves mentally and physically. If we are not well, how can we support and work with students?

Ginwright talked about recognizing trauma and engaging in activities that center on healing. He said that districts should hold “human development” trainings rather than “professional development” sessions. He explained that professional development addresses only a part of who we are, human development would develop the whole person.

Ginwright also spoke about two types of relationships that are present in a school community: transactional and transformative. Transactional relationships are the functions of our titles; educator, student, administrator, and our school interactions are based on the functions of our titles. Transactional relationships are efficient, but not enough for healing and transformation.

In transformative relationships we show up for each other as human beings regardless of our titles. We know each other beyond our titles. Transformative relationships take longer to develop. Time and space must be created to cultivate these bonds, but they are necessary to be agents of change.

Breakout sessions foster deeper learning

Following Ginwright’s keynote members chose from various breakout sessions covering topics such as adverse childhood experiences, trauma and resilience, restorative practices using mindfulness with parents and students, and other topics. Presenters included Ginwright, NJEA Priority Schools Initiative consultants, and NJEA members who have completed their three-year cycle in the initiative.

When the afternoon session ended, attendees reconvened in the ballroom. Conference attendees spoke to one another about the benefits of being part of PSI, such as the support and sense of security that working collaboratively brought them—the realization that they were not alone. Others spoke of how a deeper understanding of ACEs changed their teaching style.

“The support, information, and professional development that we provide are not a series of one-and-done sessions,” said PSI Consultant Angela Coxen. “They are an evolution that is organic to the environment.”

Plainfield Education Association President Charisse Parker views the Priority Schools Initiative differently from similar programs seeking to meet the same objectives.

“This is more of a family,” Parker said. “It creates a sense of capacity among a group of people. You have a consultant who is assigned to a school and is dedicated to the success of that school. Over time, a level of trust is built between members and their consultants. Members know their consultant is there for them. They know that their consultant is going to give them the best support, modeling, and advice possible for them to be successful. It’s building a family.”

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