Smita Nadia Hussain, who won a seat on the Bloomingdale Board of Education in Passaic County in 2020, has always strived to be of service to her community, starting as a proud Girl Scout all the way to serving on the board on national nonprofit organizations and starting an organization that supports Bangladeshi women and girls in New Jersey.

In this School Board Member spotlight feature, which the New Jersey School Boards Association kicked off in January to celebrate Gov. Phil Murphy proclaiming January 2022 as School Board Recognition Month, Hussain shares what she’s learned on her school board member journey and more.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a longtime advocate and activist working on issues to support families and children. I have worked for 15 years in the nonprofit sector, from working to address domestic violence, to teaching photojournalism classes to refugee students, to running college programs championing civic engagement, to working on policies to support families.

Since I was a child, I always aimed to be of service to my community in any way I could, starting with me being a proud Girl Scout for years to my time now working on federal policies that support early education access for families while serving on the board of national nonprofit organizations – and also starting my own organization organizing and supporting Bangladeshi women and girls in New Jersey.

Though I have worked on many issues I am passionate about, I always felt a calling to be a public servant, to run for office, and to give my time to be part of the decision-making processes that directly impact my community, decisions that can make a positive difference. This lifelong drive culminated in me running for and winning a seat to the Bloomingdale Board of Education in 2020.

Can you tell us a more about your organization supporting Bangladeshi woman and girls as well as your experience with nonprofits?

The name of the organization is the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative. We are an organization made up of local Bangladeshi women from the Paterson area. We were established in 2015, and over the years, have worked on issues such as immigration advocacy, COVID-19 mutual aid efforts, cultural and art programming with the Paterson Museum and connecting our community to the resources they need to help themselves and their families.

I serve on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU New Jersey. I also serve on the Bloomingdale Economic Development Commission.

Why did you want to serve on your local board of education?

As a mom of a first grader and a toddler, I thought it was important to have representation on our board for parents of younger children. When I ran, that representation wasn’t there at the time. I felt it was important to have a voice speaking on behalf of the younger grades when it came to making decisions for all of our students and families. I also wanted to serve due to the challenges that COVID-19 was bringing forth. Our district faced many of the same struggles that other districts across New Jersey and the country faced amid an unprecedented pandemic. I wanted to step up to serve during this time by bringing and applying my years of leadership experience and community involvement to the board as an asset during difficult times.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your district?

The Bloomingdale School district covers pre-K to 8th grade, and we have three schools: Martha B. Day Elementary, which covers grades pre-K to 1st grade, Samuel R. Donald, which covers 2nd to 4th grade, and our middle school, Walter T. Bergen, which covers 5th to 8th grade. Bloomingdale doesn’t have its own high school. We have a shared service agreement with Butler High School, which Bloomingdale students attend after Walter T. Bergen. We have 539 students total in our school, so we are a smaller district. Our students come from a small-town environment where it’s common to know a lot of the same folks.

What has surprised you about being a member of your local board of education?

What surprised me was how much I needed to learn! I knew that serving on my local board of education for the first time in my life was definitely going to be a major learning experience, but I really did need to take the time and capacity to learn not only about the role a board member plays, but important legal matters like ethics and the laws we must abide by. After a year, I feel like there is still so much to learn! I have to say, I am grateful for all the training opportunities and resources the NJSBA provides. It definitely feels good knowing that if I need answers, I can look to the Association to find them.

What major challenges have you faced as a school board member?

I will say that many people, maybe even most people, don’t know what a school board member does. I’ve heard this said often, and I will admit, though I read up on as much information as I could before I ran and when I became interested in joining a school board, I didn’t fully know what a board member did either! As our districts still face the challenges of the pandemic, parents and families understandably want answers to many questions, often directly from school board members. I have to always be very clear about my role and duties while having the public-facing side of me as a parent and active community member. It’s not always easy, but it’s so important to me to follow the trainings I’ve taken to be a supportive community member while also upholding my clear role as one person serving as part of a board that makes decisions together.

What school board accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

I am very proud that after 10 years, we hired a full-time permanent superintendent, Dr. Michael Nicosia. It has been a wonderfully positive step forward for our district to have consistent, stable ongoing leadership. I am also very proud that thanks to a state grant, we will have universal pre-K for all students in our district for the first time. This will have such a great impact on the lives of so many families who have struggled to afford and find childcare locally.

How has your school board responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic was honestly very difficult for everyone. I will say that during my time on the board, I have seen the board rise to the challenge of the pandemic. With the hiring of a permanent superintendent, decisions regarding the pandemic were streamlined and communicated efficiently. I think this was a comfort for many families who really looked to our district for answers. Our board also worked well as a team to ensure we followed the state’s decisions regarding our schools.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge as far as the pandemic is concerned?

The greatest challenge has been effectively communicating COVID information to parents and caregivers in a way that is efficient and transparent while also ensuring that we are mindful of legal privacy concerns. COVID outbreaks were unfortunately something so many of our schools dealt with, and our district was no exception. A difficult decision was made, for example, to shut down one of our schools for two weeks during an outbreak in the fall. As can be expected, this was met with some tension, but I feel like our district and superintendent rose up to the challenge to be communicative and develop best practices as we dealt with that situation. I give so much credit to our school administrators and teachers who have had to respond to these changes while still prioritizing our kid’s education. That is a credit to their dedication to the students and the district.

How does the New Jersey School Boards Association help you carry out your duties as a school board member?

The NJSBA has been an indispensable resource for me. When I first thought of running, I watched video after video of what school boards do, and the videos and information were accessible and educational. After I was elected, the new board member training was crucial to help me feel prepared and ready to serve. I really appreciated all of the trainers who gave their time to do these trainings and share their experiences with myself and other trainees. I also loved the e-conference I attended. I thought the topics were salient and the presentations were well done. I know in current times, we can’t meet in person like the past, but I think NJSBA has done a wonderful job to continue its work via video platforms in a way that is pretty efficient.

Hussain noted that the views expressed in this article are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Bloomingdale Board of Education.

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