Joyce Kilmer Middle School is one of 22 schools that are in the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative (PSI). The PSI Implementation Team at Kilmer developed a program named Students Taking an Active Role in School (STARS) after participating in workshops hosted by PSI featuring Steve Barkley.

Barkley stresses that students can progress to higher levels of achievement by setting their own goals and providing engaging activities designed to meet those goals. The STARS have weekly meetings facilitated by staff mentors. Students have taken responsibility for their own learning, behaviors and leadership roles at Kilmer. As a result, STARS attendance has improved, behavioral infractions have diminished, and academic achievement has risen.

On March 23, the STARS visited the New Jersey Statehouse to learn about how the state’s government, which is hosted by the students’ hometown, operates. My Eternal Family, a nonprofit organization based in Trenton, helped make the trip to the Statehouse possible. Twice a month, the organization’s leaders meet with the STARS at Kilmer School to work on critical thinking, address life skills and offer community support.

As the STARS approached the Statehouse steps, they were greeted by demonstrators carrying signs about health care. They hadn’t realized while they prepared for their field trip that they would see activists exercising their First Amendment rights in the midst of the national debate over the Affordable Care Act and the Republican proposal to repeal and replace it.

The STARS were given a tour of the Statehouse while learning about its history, how the government operates and the significance of the elaborate art work that adorns the building with its stained glass windows, murals and oil paintings.

The STARS met several members of the state Legislative Black Caucus. Sen. Shirley Turner, whose legislative district encompasses Trenton, greeted the group. Turner discussed decisions that directly affected the students, such as funding decisions that can determine whether libraries stay open or policy decisions that address lead in drinking water.

Students quizzed Turner regarding other issues on their minds.

“Do you have anything to do with the PARCC test?” student J’Houle Ellis asked her.

Turner responded that she understands the loss of classroom learning that is resulting from current polices for state-required standardized tests. She said that some members of the New Jersey Legislature would like to change such rules.

Through these issues she impressed upon the STARS the importance of getting involved, volunteering and voting.

“Work as hard as you can so you can take my place,” Turner said.

The STARS met other members of the legislature including Assemblywomen Elizabeth Muio, Annette Chaparro, Angela McKnight and Assemblymen Jamel C. Holley and Troy Singleton. All of them spoke to the STARS and reiterated the message of getting involved by having a voice, asking questions, voting and shaping the legislative process.

The STARS also met with Dr. Joseph Youngblood II, Vice Provost and Dean of the John S. Watson School of Public Service from Thomas Edison State University. Youngblood reinforced the importance of voting, as well as shaping and influencing policies. The group was treated to lunch through a grant provided by Thomas Edison State University.

Shanda Scott is a sixth grade social studies teacher and facilitator of the Priority Schools Initiative Implementation Team.

Erin Kondash is an eighth grade language arts teacher and Priority Schools Initiative Implementation Team member.

Patricia Lieberman-Sharp is the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative Consultant to Joyce Kilmer Middle School.

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