Amy Hassa, who earned her master’s degree in social work from Rutgers University and has worked in the area of mental health and suicide prevention for 21 years, initially ran for her local board of education after her K-8th-grade district saw a handful of its students die by suicide.
She saw the opportunity to lend her expertise to the district to avoid further loss and to advocate for mental health on a broad level.
In this School Board Member spotlight, Hassa shares what she’s learned on her school board member journey.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Amy Hassa, and I have served as a member of the Hamilton Township School District in Atlantic County for over six years.
I have served as vice president of the local board for three years, and I served as president for one year. As a board member, I have been an advocate for students locally and throughout the state. I have attended hundreds of hours of board and leadership training and provided many trainings to educators, administrators, and boards. I am also serving as a member of the New Jersey School Boards Association’s Board of Directors, as the committee chair for the statewide Health and Wellness Committee and I served on the NJSBA Taskforce for Mental Health and Safety. Finally, during my time as a board member, I have achieved the NJSBA Board Member Academy distinctions for New Board Member, Certified Board Member, Master Board Member and Certified Board Leader. I have lived in Mays Landing for 18 years. I have two children, ages 14 and 16, who are both in magnet programs at Cedar Creek High School.
I earned my master’s in social work from Rutgers University and have worked in the area of mental health and suicide prevention for 21 years. I currently work under several grants and teach mental health and suicide prevention. I work as a contractor primarily under the Department of Mental Health and Addictions Services, the Mental Health Association and Spread the Love Foundation. I also am a freelance contractor and own Finding Empowerment Advocacy & Training, LLC.
I have developed trainings in the areas of wellness and equity and often teach at county meetings. I have been honored to teach at the last several NJSBA Workshops.
Besides volunteering as a board member, I have volunteered in my community as a choir director for a local church, a district volunteer, a PTA membership chair, a leadership mentor at Stockton University and a Girl Scout leader and recruiter. I am also the founder and coordinator of a food distribution program through our community, Hamilton Township Cares, which has supported hundreds of individuals in accessing healthy food through the pandemic. This program has also provided hundreds of children with toys for Christmas, baskets for Easter and provided seniors and homeless residents with meals for Thanksgiving.
Why did you decide to serve on your local board of education?
I initially ran for the local board of education after a suicide contagion impacted our local K-8 district. I saw the potential for further loss and wanted to offer my education and experience to the district. I also wanted to advocate for a mental health initiative to help to change the climate and culture and provide more resources and support to our students, families and staff. Having a relationship with a broad network of leaders in my community, I wanted to open up the collaboration of the district and community at large. I wanted to be able to advocate for changes in the state to support best practices for wellness in all districts. Ultimately, I saw the board as an opportunity to do more to change the landscape of mental health resources, to provide support and to reduce the stigma for pre-K-12th-grade students and their families.
What has surprised you about being a member of your local board of education?
Upon joining the board, I was very surprised by the realities of board governance. Many times, the board seemed like it was not doing enough to keep our students safe and to support our staff. As a parent, I was concerned about the student experience and wanted the board to appear as passionate and enthusiastic about change as the parents. What I came to realize is that they were passionate in committee and behind the scenes, but members had to maintain composure and balance to avoid alienating parents in a very diverse district. I also learned they were cautious to protect the district. I learned that board members need to look at all perspectives and be able to be a resource providing support to all stakeholders.
What major challenges have you faced as a school board member?
I have faced several challenges as a board member. I have faced frightened parents looking for answers we did not always have. I have faced budget impacts that have limited our ability to give students every opportunity we wanted for them. I have faced challenges, especially through the pandemic, of advocating in a very divided community with very contradictory information being provided to the board. I have faced the challenges of managing the needs of the community and the health – both physical and mental health – of our students and staff. I have faced challenges in supporting decisions because they are majority and have learned more about teamwork than I ever had before. These challenges always have strengthened my resolve and ability to advocate for every student – and I am grateful for the education they provided me.
What school board accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
There are three things that give me immense pride during my volunteerism as a board member. The first is that I was able to be part of local and state conversations around mental health and assist in creating policies and procedures that changed our district’s approach to wellness. Since that time, we have stopped losing students to suicide and have educated and supported families in crisis.
My second proudest accomplishment is that when faced with a pandemic, I was able to use my position to help create a communitywide collaboration that has helped hundreds of students, families and community members have stable access to healthy food. The Hamilton Township Cares program has provided Thanksgiving meals, Easter baskets and thousands of Christmas/holiday gifts to help parents have what they need to provide their children special moments and healthy meals.
Finally, I am so proud to have been able to participate in creating a board dynamic of servant leadership. Our board has grown and become a team, and I am proud for the part I played in that.
How has your school board responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The board has done an amazing job being flexible and committed to keeping students safe and advocating for staff. We were challenged by having leadership changes at both the superintendent and board level in the middle of the pandemic. The board worked hard to find and choose the best possible educational leader to move us through these challenging times, with Dr. Jeffrey Zito starting as superintendent in July 2021.
The board was out with Hamilton Township Cares delivering food to homeless families. They donated time and money to provide lunches to 210 staff members at one of our district schools, the George Hess Educational Complex, after they lost Cara Bluth, a vice principal, to COVID-19. I am beyond proud to be a member of such a hardworking and caring board of education.
Our board came together and paid for, put together and delivered 210 individual breakfast bags and wrapped bagels. The bags included fruit, granola bars, condiments and a “hug” from the board and was there the morning the staff returned after the loss.
How does the New Jersey School Boards Association help you carry out your duties as a school board member?
NJSBA is the most amazing partner I could ask for!
I will start by saying that everyone from the executive director to the field service representatives have shown me as a board member nothing but care and support. They advocate for us, provide us information, share our frustrations and mourn our losses by our side. They assisted us in finding our new educational leader and spent countless hours helping us through virtual opportunities and education. I know I would not be the board member I am without the NJSBA’s leadership, ingenuity and hard work!
If your school board does something special to honor school board members during January, which is School Board Recognition Month, or anytime throughout the year, tell us about it.
Our district honors us in such a beautiful way. Each year we receive appreciation from the students. We receive handmade cards, banners, or videos. Our administrative team chooses books to donate to their libraries in our names.
Hassa noted that the views expressed in this article are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Hamilton Township School Board in Atlantic County.
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