• Dr. Tim Purnell, executive director and CEO of NJSBA; and Karen Cortellino, NJSBA president, open the exhibit floor wearing superhero capes to honor the theme of the convention.

Not everyone was wearing a cape at Workshop 2023 in Atlantic City, but they are all committed to the advancement of student achievement, which makes them superheroes.

With a theme of “Today’s Students … Tomorrow’s Superheroes,” the Oct. 23-26 conference hosted by the New Jersey School Boards Association and co-hosted by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, drew more than 8,000 registrants to the Atlantic City Convention Center – all working to advance the education of students.

But some participants were, in fact, wearing bright red capes to signify their commitment to education.

Dr. Timothy Purnell, the executive director and CEO of NJSBA, broke out the capes and distributed them to some of his fellow leaders in education to celebrate the opening of Workshop’s exhibit hall on Tuesday.

“All of our school officials here at the conference this week — work tirelessly to help ensure that every child has the educational opportunities they need to reach their full potential.  That is worthy of super-hero status,” Purnell said,

Dr. Karen Cortellino, president of NJSBA, explained the impetus for the theme before attendees entered the exhibit hall, noting, “The theme ‘Today’s Students … Tomorrow’s Superheroes’ emphasizes the crucial role of education in shaping the future of our society,” she said. “Education is the foundation upon which future generations build their knowledge, skills and abilities, enabling them to become the leaders, innovators and problem-solvers of tomorrow. Like superheroes, students have the potential to make a positive impact on the world and create a better future, and a better world for all.”

Acting Commissioner Delivers Remarks

One of Workshop’s keynote speakers was Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillian, the acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, who was so supportive of Workshop’s theme that she kept her red cape on for her address on Tuesday at the Audio Enhancement Keynote Theater.

“I am truly living the theme,” she announced as she walked to the lectern wearing her cape. Once there, she proceeded to recognize her fellow superheroes with the NJDOE and other educational leaders in attendance.

“We at the Department of Education value working together for the benefit of our superheroes in training,” she said, referring to New Jersey’s students. “We also recognize and acknowledge the profound impact your daily decisions have on enhancing their superpowers.”

During her address, she highlighted numerous initiatives and investments in education, such as the $11 billion in direct K-12 aid for public schools in the fiscal year 2024 budget – an $832 million increase – and the NJDOE’s efforts to help schools take advantage of federal ESSER funds.

She also highlighted various statewide initiatives to support students from preschool through grade 12, career and technical education, high impact tutoring programs, the Reading Acceleration Professional Integrated Development program, the expansion of preschool education, climate change education, the New Jersey Partnership for Student Success initiative, battling chronic absenteeism, youth mental health and more.

Legislators Sound Off on Issues

Another highlight of Workshop was the legislative panel on Tuesday, which featured Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-13), the Senate Republican budget officer; and Assemblyman Erik Simonsen (R-1), a member of the Assembly Education Committee and the Joint Committee on the Public Schools. Serving as moderator was Jonathan Pushman, NJSBA’s director of governmental relations.

Ruiz said she is “severely concerned” about education in New Jersey and thanked the state’s school board members for their commitment to advancing student education.

“I’m concerned about reading, writing, math and facilities that were built before Abraham Lincoln took office – and not having enough funding to build enough in every zip code of the state,” she said. “For me, what feels like a state of emergency in education is not getting the attention it deserves and it needs.”

O’Scanlon acknowledged that school board members rarely get the credit for the good things they do but they “invariably get blamed for things they have nothing to do with.”

“School funding is a mess,” he said. He noted that he has been one of the people leading the charge to fix what he sees as problems with the school funding formula.

“The first couple of years of S-2 cuts probably were bearable for most districts,” he said. “Now, we are in year six…The state should have foreseen that there would be problems with taking away money from districts that have been hurt as a result of the formula. You are bound by caps and restrictions put on you.”

Simonsen, who has spent his career working in education, acknowledged all that school board members deal with – athletics, transportation, maintenance, building and grounds and everything else involved with running schools. “I know the work that goes into being on the school board, and you get a lot of different topics thrown at you,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Pushman noted that it’s no secret that there is an election coming up with all 120 seats in the Legislature on the ballot. “Public education has been in the spotlight – or some may say crosshairs,” he observed.

On top of the usual focus on school funding, other issues are on top of voters’ minds, such as parental rights, parental notification, book ban policies and other topics, he said.

“Are we focusing on the right issues?” he asked the panel.

O’Scanlon said it’s appropriate for parents to question material that is being taught to their children if they feel it is “too much, too soon” but also said it is often going too far to try to ban books in the library setting.

“We have to get back to the nine core content standards,” Simonsen said. “Teachers have been overwhelmed with mandates … when they don’t have time to teach the nine subject areas they are supposed to be teaching.” He added, “We need to get back to basics and let teachers teach.”

While O’Scanlon does not like it when he sees school board elections filled with “vitriol and demagoguery,” he said there is nothing wrong with people being passionate about issues. “Having those things publicly debated is a good thing,” he said.

On the subject of school funding, Ruiz said it’s unfair for districts to think they are getting more money than they end up getting. “It’s not fair to any child or school district,” she said.

“We should always be revisiting everything to be sure we are not falling short … and that we’re protecting every single student in every single district,” she said.

While she wouldn’t necessarily say that the state needs “to blow up the school funding formula,” she said, “We have to be smarter and more purposeful – I think it is a more multipronged approach.”

Pushman asked the legislators whether they would support raising the 2% property tax levy cap that districts must work under.

Simonsen said he supports raising the cap but said how much it should be raised is debatable.

Pushman also asked about the teacher shortage.

More work needs to be done on the federal level to encourage and help people enter the teaching profession, Ruiz said. She also supports eliminating the state residence requirement for a certain timeframe, noting that the results could be studied to make sure New Jerseyans who want to teach are not adversely affected by the change.

“We also have to talk about retention – we can’t lose sight of that,” she said. “We think about the pipeline going in, but we don’t think about the pipeline leaving … What can we do to support them?”

It’s not just teachers but it’s also bus drivers, cafeteria workers and all sorts of positions school districts are struggling to fill, Simonsen said. More needs to be done to mentor young teachers who come into the classroom, so they can be successful, he said.

There is lots of support to provide alternate avenues to get into teaching and fill other roles, O’Scanlon said. The state should eliminate certain assessments that “are worthless yet absorb huge amounts of resources,” he said. Restoring respect for teachers – from both parents and students – is critical, he said.

There was also a passionate exchange about helping students recover from learning loss as a result of the pandemic, with widespread agreement that the state must do more to help students.

Simonsen noted that in Cumberland County, there are still large pockets without internet service, and that if a pandemic happened again tomorrow “we’d be in the same boat.” More needs to be done to create internet access in rural areas, he said.

Pushman also asked the legislators about mental health, with the legislators indicating that they believe the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services – or NJ4S – will remain an overlay on existing school-based services and not become a replacement.

Student Representative Shares Insights

Nilanjana Ghosh, a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North who is the student representative on the New Jersey State Board of Education, spoke Tuesday, giving attendees a glimpse into her life, so they could understand what the typical student of today faces on a daily basis.

“Truth be told, our world can be every bit as stressful, hurried and overwhelming as adults – sometimes even more so,” she said. “Being so young, it can be extra difficult to navigate the challenges we face.”

She outlined her perfect morning routine but acknowledged that sometimes her mornings go much differently.

“Some mornings I get out of bed not feeling well rested” and she barely makes it out the door and goes to school feeling hungry, she said. “Routines of self-care are essential to be successful,” she said.

Even though she knows it is normal to need support, she sometimes worries about failing to live up to expectations of doing everything herself.

Later, she said, “To improve, we must all recognize our flaws and faults and realize there is no shame in our shortcomings.” Students should not only be tasked with learning subject matter in classrooms but should also be taught skills to handle stress and navigate life challenges, she said.

“It’s important that we are equipped with tools to handle anything life throws at us,” she said.

A Soccer Legend Takes the Workshop Stage

One of Workshop’s most memorable moments came Wednesday when Carli Lloyd, an alumna of Delran High School and Rutgers University who is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, two-time FIFA Player of the Year, and a four-time Olympian took the stage for a candid chat with Purnell.

Cortellino had the honor of introducing Lloyd, stating, “She runs her own CL10 Soccer Clinics for boys and girls. When you go to register for one of her clinics, you’ll read this: ‘The most important mindset is you are competing against yourself to be better than you were when you started.’ We should be sharing that same message to the students in our schools.”

Lloyd said she has fond memories of growing up in Delran and playing outside with other kids. A “blue collar, chip on the shoulder attitude was what defined me and allowed me to be me,” she said.

Asked by Purnell who inspired her along the way, Lloyd mentioned her dad, who coached some of her sports teams. “So many have helped on that journey and laid that foundation,” she said. “But looking back, what allowed me to be me is that teachers and coaches inspired me to just be me. I think that is the most important thing.”

What propelled her to success, however, was a will and passion that is “often not teachable,” Lloyd said.

“I would look around at other players – many probably better than me,” she said. “I was the last one standing because of the will I had inside me.”

Asked what message she would like to share with others, Lloyd said, “The No. 1 thing I say is be the best version of yourself.” That is difficult to do, especially in the world we live in now, she said.

“Times have changed,” she said. “I look at school districts and the environment kids are in today, and I don’t know if I would want to be a kid in today’s society.” She alluded to the pressures of social media and the desire to fit in.

“So often, we are worried about what other people are doing,” she said. “That takes time and energy away from making ourselves great.”

Being able to navigate setbacks is critical, she said. “When I look back at my career, all those setbacks and failures are what made those amazing moments come true,” she said. “There are always things that challenge you … and you can pout and be upset for a little bit, but then have to dust yourself off, get back up and keep fighting through it.”

One of the best things someone can do for a child, she said, is to put your arm around them and tell them that it is OK to fail. “It’s an opportunity to learn and to really find out what you are made out of,” she said.

Going ‘All In’

Gian Paul Gonzalez, a high school history teacher, executive director of the Hope & Future Youth Center and a youth education and wellness expert shared how his message of going “all in” resonated with the New York Giants on their way to winning the Super Bowl following the 2011 regular season.

Purnell, who invited Gonzalez to speak in Somerville in 2011 when he was the district’s superintendent, serves on the board of Gonzalez’s Hope & Future Youth Center. The message of gong “all in” has stuck with him ever since he met Gonzalez.

“This has been sacred to my mission – to be all in to the community I serve and to be all in for my family,” Purnell said.

Gonzalez shared with the audience how he became a star athlete in college and why he chose to pursue a career in education instead of seeking to become a professional athlete.

During his presentation, he emphasized how much of a difference educators make in the lives of children, noting that some days – more than most would like to admit – they may question why they are in the classroom. However, it is hard to quantify the impact a great teacher has on the lives of students, he said.

The greatest leaders, he said, are not those who have the greatest number of followers online or a check mark beside their name on social media. Rather, they are the ones who change lives, he said.

He also shared how the only reason the Giants invited him to speak to them in the first place was because of his work sharing a message of hope and helping students in juvenile jails.

His message has resonated, and over the years, he has been invited to speak at organizations around the world, including at the annual shareholders’ meeting at WalMart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. He realized how big of a deal it was to be there when he looked over to see who the next speaker at the meeting was and realized it was Tom Cruise, the well-known actor.

Going “all in” is so much more than a slogan, he said.

“For us, ‘all in’ is not a slogan on a T-shirt,” he said. “It is something we choose to live inside and outside. For me, it is not a T-shirt – it is a reason to live.”

Shining a Spotlight on Sustainability

Dr. Joseph Soporowski, the co-founder of Sustainable Education Associates, delivered a keynote address on Monday, exploring simple ways teachers and schools can make sustainability and eco-literacy part of their existing curricula.

“We are not getting to sustainability unless we address climate change,” he said, observing that even if you get “pushback” on climate change, eventually even the most avid climate deniers realize that it is important to “get on board with climate education.”

He lamented the fact that there is not “across the board buy-in” on eco-literacy and said part of the problem is all the available resources to include it in the curriculum can seem overwhelming to teachers – especially those who are not well-acquainted with environmental issues.

“But once the teachers realize that by infusing this information into their instruction, they make the core content material relevant, meaningful and interesting to their students” then they get on board, he said.

He provided numerous examples of how teachers could incorporate sustainability and eco-literacy into the existing curriculum, such as the idea of using the concept of polluted water to teach fractions.

He also highlighted what it means to teach environmental science, which is the integration of all the pure sciences together with all the other teaching disciplines. America has made a big mistake by compartmentalizing environmental science instead of weaving it into other subjects, he said.

Unsung Heroes Recognized in Special Ceremony

Some of education’s unsung heroes were also recognized at Workshop during NJSBA’s first Unsung Superheroes in Education awards.

Purnell credited Kimberly Lane, a member of the Piscataway Board of Education who also serves on NJSBA’s board of directors, for coming up with the idea for the awards, which recognizes some of those who don’t often get the recognition they deserve.

Purnell shared that NJSBA received more than 200 nominations for the awards, “which speaks to the appreciation that students and staff have for these school staff members who are typically overlooked.”

The awards recognized the invaluable contributions of school district staff in various categories. Purnell called each winner to the stage and was joined by NJSBA’s officers in recognizing the winners. They are:

  • Charae Thompson-Perry, Camden City School District, was the winner in the administration/secretary category. She is the senior director of community partnerships in the Camden City School District. With over 30 years of dedication to the very district that nurtured her, she embodies the essence of prioritizing students. During her free time, she generously coaches a group of over 60 young individuals in cheerleading, and personally provides students in need with food and clothing.
  • Vernon Berube, Beach Haven School District, was the winner in the bus driver/aide category. He has served Beach Haven Elementary School since 2009. A member of the community since 1960, he takes care of his bus and the school’s children as if they were his own. He takes time to get to know each student and family, and continuously evaluates and adjusts his procedures to ensure the utmost safety for children. A beloved member of the district, he also gives back to the community by supporting the PTA and many local businesses.
  • Anthony Fink, Hamilton Township School District, was the winner in the cafeteria/food services category. He is the food service supervisor for the Hamilton Township School District. During the pandemic, he developed and implemented programs to ensure students received nutritious meals, whether they were attending school in-person or on a hybrid basis. He was instrumental in establishing efficient breakfast and lunch distribution programs, giving students access to quality meals even in uncertain times. 
  • Laura Chegwidden, Kinnelon School District, was the winner in the coach/club adviser category. She is the head coach of Kinnelon High School’s cross country and track teams. “Coach Chegs” is highly acclaimed by her superintendent, students and board of education members. She openly and proudly praises her athletes at board of education meetings.
  • James Schroeder, Verona Public School District, was the winner in the crossing guard category. He has been stationed at the street corner of Forest Avenue and Hillside Avenue for almost 20 years. Every day, regardless of weather conditions, he responsibly and cheerfully guides children across the street. He knows each child and their parents by name, greeting them with a smile every day. 
  • Kristian Byk, Watchung Hills Regional High School District, was the winner in the custodian/maintenance/building and grounds category. He has served as the director of operations for buildings and grounds at Watchung Regional High School for the past four years, though he has been an employee for 21 years. He ensures students learn in a safe environment and is always available, going above and beyond his responsibilities daily. 
  • Theresa DiGeronimo, Hawthorne Borough School District, was the winner in the librarian/media specialist category. She is the media specialist at Hawthorne High School and has served in this role for 18 years. She has created a media center that has invaluable resources for every student and staff member. She encourages student input on library materials, notifies teachers of the resources available to them and ensures media center materials are aligned with the curriculum. She updates the school’s social media and produces a monthly media center newsletter.
  • Jennifer Voli, Bloomingdale School District, was the winner in the paraprofessional/aide category. She has been a paraprofessional within the Bloomingdale School District for 16 years and currently works at Samuel R. Donaldson Elementary School. Described as a “godsend” by teachers and administrators, she can be counted on for everything and has a deep, genuine love for supporting all students. She embraces what a student needs to be successful and encourages them to be active participants in the community. 
  • Lauryn Hooven, Weymouth Township School District, was the winner in the school nurse category. She is described as an exemplary nurse and employee. Every member of the school relies on her expertise. Even in emergencies, she maintains a calm and professional demeanor. She goes out of her way to check up on students’ well-being, both physical and emotional. She plans proactive health events for the school and is an integral member of Weymouth Township School District.
  • Officer Nicole DeBiase, Somerville School District, was the winner in the school security personnel category. She is a community police officer who serves Van Derveer Elementary School. She tries to attend and actively participate in school functions. She understands how building relationships with the school community strengthens the overall safety and security of the school. Described as one in a million, she does all that she can to support the academic and emotional growth of all Van Derveer students.
  • There was also a special recognition for John Prudente, a football chain official at Somerville School District. Prudente served Somerville High School for 50 years as the chain official, part of the school’s “chain gang.” He has the very important responsibility of ensuring the school’s football games are tracked accurately from the sidelines. Over the years, he has been part of four undefeated seasons and eight state championships. He has missed only one game in his decades-long career of being a chain official.

Workshop attendees had a chance to enjoy hundreds of other sessions as well as the annual Fall School Law Forum, which was held Thursday and brought back to Workshop by popular demand. They also connected with hundreds of exhibitors who share their mission to advance the education of students.