Just as most New Jersey public school districts started the school year, several NJEA members and leaders took time on Sept. 6 to speak before members of the New Jersey State Board of Education in open testimony, their first of the school year. Any topic related to education was welcomed.
NJEA Vice President Steve Beatty used his time to share the stories from some of the 40 school districts he has visited over the past year. He called on the State Board members to really listen to educators’ voices on issues such as school climate and culture, Student Growth Objectives (SGOs), ESP issues, book bans and curriculum challenges, educator recruitment and retention, school safety, social emotional learning and educator wellness, special education, and more.
“You just need to listen today – and act tomorrow,” Beatty urged the Board members. “From my 32 years in public education, one maxim has been the through line – follow the lead of those who know. We are told to listen to our kids – understand their needs and meet them where they are. Anything else would be perpetrating a great disservice.”
Sharita Stinson, a paraprofessional in Haddon Heights Public Schools, spoke to the Board about the issues facing her and her educational support professional (ESP) colleagues. She talked about the impact outsourcing jobs, part-time employment, inadequate pay, no benefits and disrespect are having on ESP members across the state.
“This is a call to action to improve conditions,” Stinson testified.
Andrew Lewis, president of the Old Bridge Education Association, which represents 1,000 teachers and ESPs, discussed the educator shortage. He referenced the report presented by the Task Force on Public School Staff Shortages in New Jersey, specifically two recommendations the Task Force has promoted: mentoring and reducing paperwork.
Lewis shared how Old Bridge – at the instigation of the OBEA – has initiated a mentoring program for paraprofessionals in their first two years of employment with the district.
“We’re grappling with a shortage of qualified educators,” Lewis said. “We have to address the root causes.”
In addition, Lewis spoke about the necessity of reducing the burden of paperwork.
“SGOs are a waste of valuable instructional time,” he said.
NJEA Associate Director of Professional Development and Instructional Issues Elisabeth Yucis testified about the value of an improved interface for the State Board of Education to connect with the public and share testimony.
“We ask that all public input be available and accessible online,” Yucis said, referencing a highly successful model available at the federal government level.
“NJEA is committed to ensuring each child in New Jersey receives a great education in a safe school,” Yucis said. “We want to strengthen relationships among stakeholders. We will collaborate more effectively if we have this mechanism.”
NJREA member and retired Pennsauken English teacher and school librarian Miriam Reichenbach discussed the issue of censorship and book banning in public schools.
“We must understand the importance of students dealing with things that make them uncomfortable,” Reichenbach told the State Board members. “Let’s allow them to do that under the guidance of an experienced professional who can offer explanations and information. We live in a world where we will encounter ideas that make us uncomfortable. As professionals, we have an obligation to teach our young people how to cope with and learn from experiences that cause them discomfort.”
Reichenbach closed with a quote from President Obama: “I hope you’ll join me in reminding anyone who will listen – and even some people you think might not – that the free, robust exchange of ideas has always been at the heart of American democracy. Together, we can make that true for generations to come.”
New Jersey Association of School Librarians Legislative Consultant Mary Moyer Stubbs asked the State Board of Education to publicly support school librarians and media specialists in what has become a highly charged environment. She spoke about the harassment members are facing for “putting the right book in the right student’s hands.”
Kathleen Fernandez, the executive director of NJTESOL/NJBE, which represents NJ Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages/NJ Bilingual Educators, and an NJREA member, discussed the limitations of the code related to multi-lingual learners.
In total, there were three rooms where testimony was heard. Two State Board members heard testimony in each room. Speakers had five minutes and the opportunity to submit their testimony.