Jason Velante Sr. has spent his career as an educator. So, when he had the chance to run for a seat on the Wanaque Board of Education in Passaic County in 2016, he decided to combine his passion for education with his interest in being a civic-minded member of the community.

In our new School Board Member spotlight feature, which we’re kicking off this month to celebrate Gov. Phil Murphy proclaiming January 2022 as School Board Recognition Month, Velante shares what he’s learned on his school board member journey, why he continues to serve and more.

You are an English as a second language teacher for Paterson Public Schools. Can you tell us a little bit about your job, how long you’ve been with the school system and how you became a teacher?

My well-traveled career includes a parochial school, charter schools, teaching at a suburban district, and Abbott districts. Since 2013, I have served students with the Paterson Public Schools as an ESL teacher, and in 2016, I was first elected as a board member in Wanaque. I’ve been blessed to have taken the best practices of various colleagues to make me the educational leader I am today. Classroom and school board duties have given me a wide perspective about the importance of education.

I first had a calling toward education as an undergraduate at Montclair State University. The MSU Peer Mediation Program sponsored workshop training with my former high school, Don Bosco Tech High School in Paterson. Naturally, this led to a smooth introduction to teaching after graduation. At the tender age of 23, still clean shaven, and with ink still drying on my new college diploma, my coworkers thought I was a student rather than a high school geometry teacher. Both alma maters have led me to where I am today.

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

As a career educator and civic-minded member of the community, I married my two passions into one action — by seeking to bring positive change to our local school board. When we first moved into Wanaque, we first got involved with the school PTA. Soon after, I got entangled with so many local organizations that our family calendars are booked, nearly every event somehow servicing the betterment of children of our community.

My eldest son has since graduated from our K-8 system, and my youngest is still currently enrolled. Whether I have children or not enrolled in our school down the road, I will continue to apply the same guidelines and training from my earlier PTA days: Kids always come first.

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

Only those in education know how the education of children can be completely exhausting yet completely uplifting at the same time. Whether it is in a classroom or a boardroom, conflict will inevitably arise. As long as folks rally around the idea that there is more at stake than our own individual agendas, meaningful change will come. I’ve been on the short end of some 5-4 voting, yet I still support the plan if its purpose is to support student growth. It doesn’t matter how we get to the next level if the betterment of children remains our guiding light.

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

Trying to balance home, work, and board life proves that the struggle is real. As an 18-year veteran educator, my Friday nights used to be sacred. When I became a board member, I sacrificed those few hours of sanity to review any board notes for upcoming meetings. One has to maintain a high level of energy if Saturdays are spent with family, Sundays are shared with the community, and the rest of the week is spent designing lesson plans and teaching.

Someone once taught me that everything in education is ongoing. Changes are inevitable. The end of the day doesn’t end at the final class bell. The end of my day ends when I am physically unable to give any more. It sounds exhausting, but I sleep well at night with a clean conscience, knowing that each day I gave my all.

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

I’ve never taken credit for what our district has accomplished. Teachers are the ones in the classrooms. Administrators are running the day-to-day. I can only lay claim to the positions I’ve held and the waters we’ve charted as a sitting member. My monthly committee and board meetings don’t amount to much compared with the 180+ days staff and students have put in our schools. My lone “brag-tag” may be my stellar attendance as a board member to do my part.

I’ve missed exactly two board meetings in four years. Once was for a mid-term, and another was when I had to take a final exam when I completed my English as a second language teacher certification courses. Even then, I still caught the post-executive session after missing my meeting.

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

As a teacher, my co-workers and I once joked that our administration wanted us to be “flexible.” It wasn’t complete hyperbole that we were almost expected to be rubber-band flexible – the type where the back of your head could almost touch the back of your feet. During the pandemic, we really had to live up to that ideal. We were flexible enough to pivot in and out of virtual and hybrid situations.

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

During this pandemic, the NJSBA has shown that even though we may sometimes be far apart, we can still share experiences.

In February 2020, I met New Jersey’s 2019-2022 Teacher of the Year, Kimberly Dickstein Hughes, when I was presenting “Why I Came to America” for the NJSBA’s Best Practices in Urban Education Committee (2020) — and she was presenting in the adjacent room. We soon teamed together with NJN Learning Live to refine an episode for students statewide. The NJSBA has provided a platform in which educators can meet, and leaders can be made.

It was also an honor to host the workshop “Free Virtual Tools that Teachers & Districts Actually Use” during the 2020 NJSBA’s Virtual Workshop. Afterward, I was also able to interact with the other speakers and vendors. A former co-worker from my first year of teaching was serving on a different board and was in attendance. I connected the dots with other important contacts throughout the event.

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Enjoy these resources and information on celebrating School Board Recognition Month in New Jersey.

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Learn more about Jason Velante Sr. in this School Leader article. The article focuses on why he won a School Leader “Outstanding Program” award at Workshop 2019 for the “Why I Came to America” program.