The New Jersey School Boards Association continues to celebrate its 2022 School Leader award winners. These are prime examples of schools that have excelled at providing programs that are effective, creative and innovative.

This year, the judges selected several programs for recognition, including the ones featured in this article: Mendham Township Elementary School for its Mission to Create a Positive School Culture and Climate; Passaic School District for its STEM Career and Technical Pathways Early College Program and the South Bergen Jointure Commission for its No Barriers: Empowering Special Education Students to Live Full and Independent Lives program.

They  join our past winners who were recognized in previous issues for enhancing student achievement through their programs. Entries were judged on their level of innovation as well as how well their programs met student needs in an ever-changing environment.

Mendham Seeks to Bolster Social Emotional Learning The goal of the Mendham Township program is twofold: to improve the ability of students to shape their environment by engaging in a variety of opportunities to develop their “student voice,” interpersonal skills, problem-solving abilities and conflict resolution skills – and to improve student citizenship and school culture, paving the way for students to cultivate positive relationships with their peers and students in other grades. 

The impetus for the program was borne before the pandemic, when during the 2019-2020 school year, staff recognized that students were struggling to manage peer relationships and regulate emotions. They were also showing higher levels of anxiety. 

The elementary school, which serves about 470 students from preschool through fourth grade, embarked on a three-year SEL process with guidance from the School Culture & Climate Initiative through the Center of Human and Social Development at St. Elizabeth University. School staff met with a school climate and assessment improvement process consultant and leveraged data from a survey to develop goals for the program.

A schoolwide SEL committee that included 17 volunteer teachers, parents, support staff and administrators met four times throughout the year to focus on the program’s goals and complete a number of activities, such as reviewing curriculum, applying for and receiving a grant provided by the SEL4NJ Social Emotional Learning Alliance of New Jersey, overseeing the launch of “Tiger Leaders” to promote student voice and cultivate relationships across grade levels, helping with the MTES Talent Show and more.

As part of the program, fourth-grade students took an end-of-the-year field trip to Camp Bernie in Port Murray.

“The purpose of the day is to allow our students to engage in a variety of outdoor adventure activities that require them to collaborate with others, problem-solve and support each other,” said Dr. Julianne K. Kotcho, principal of Mendham Township Elementary School. “They are challenged to push themselves just a bit out of their own comfort zone to build self-confidence and a sense of personal achievement in a noncompetitive environment. We had 97 students attend last spring.”

The school continues to monitor how the program is working – and so far, it is thrilled with what it sees. In spring 2023, the School Climate Assessment Lab, Saint Elizabeth University, Center for Human and Social Development administered a School Culture and Climate survey. A longitudinal comparison of data from 2020 – 2023 showed:

  • Incidents of discipline and bullying decreased.
  • Student relationships with teachers improved.
  • Teachers reported higher levels of supportive leadership.

The comparison data will help inform the school’s next steps, so it can build upon its success, Kotcho said.

Passaic Public Schools Shines a Spotlight on STEM Passaic Public School District was recognized for its STEM Career and Technical Pathways Early College Program.

Students in grades six to 12 at the Passaic Academy for Science & Engineering, which is led by Dr. Jennifer Aguilar, school principal, get the chance to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics pathways through the program. Moreover, as part of the PASE Early College Program, students can take college courses offered through Bergen Community College and graduate with an associate degree in science, mathematics and natural science. In the 2022-2023 school year, the Passaic Academy for Science & Engineering had 17 students who earned an associate degree, and this year, 22 are expected to graduate with a degree.

The academy serves about 750 students, according to Stefania Duarte, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Every student has the chance to graduate with a career certification, she said.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the Early College Pathway, which provides access for all students to engage in college-level coursework while still enrolled in high school. “Many, if not all of the credits earn transfer to New Jersey colleges/universities, allowing students to enter post-secondary education with at most 60 credits,” Duarte said.

The program focuses on data analytics, biotechnology, computer science, aerospace engineering and biomedical science. The district funds 100% of the tuition and cost.

With each career pathway, students engage deeply with the subject. For instance, with the biomedical pathway, students get the chance to become EMT, CPR and phlebotomy certified. Students in the aerospace engineering pathway can take the FAA Airman Knowledge Test and can apply for a commercial drone pilot license. Biotechnology students have worked with Kean University to conduct cancer research using CRISPR technology, which edits genes by precisely cutting DNA and then letting natural DNA repair processes activate.

For the past three years, the academy has been recognized by the College Board in AP Computer Science for the Female Diversity Award. The academy is fully funded by the Passaic City school district. PASE has applied for and received awards for several competitive grants that allow the school to launch innovative STEM programming and new pathway initiatives.

Being recognized with an award from School Leader “was an incredibly rewarding experience,” Duarte said. “It has been wonderful to watch the STEM CTE and Early College Programs grow with such strong support from the Passaic Public School District. Moreover, it brings me immense satisfaction to be able to communicate to others the profound and positive transformations these programs have ushered into the lives of our students.”

No Barriers to Achievement at South Bergen Jointure Who better to serve as a source of inspiration to students with an Individualized Education Program than Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mount Everest? 

Beginning in 2020, the South Bergen Jointure Commission, which provides special education classes for children of varying classifications from Pre-K to 21 years of age, began partnering with the nonprofit organization founded by Weihenmayer, No Barriers USA.

The organization empowers people of all abilities and from all walks of life to overcome obstacles, live a life of purpose and give back to the world. 

SBJC partnered with the No Barriers group in formalizing a theoretical framework that engages students in exploring new activities and showing them that “what’s within them is stronger than what’s in their way.”  

Some of the activities that have been implemented as part of the SBJC No Barriers program include: 

Yoga/Mindfulness In reviewing district data regarding the use of crisis interventions for severe behaviors, the SBJC noticed a trend in classrooms regularly implementing mindfulness techniques like meditation and yoga: The district had far fewer behavioral crises than classrooms that didn’t use these methods. The SBJC has since hired a yoga and mindfulness teacher to work with every student in the district to promote skills of self-regulation.

Biking for All A team of physical educators, physical/occupational therapists and administrators designed a program that incorporated bicycling into the physical education curriculum. The ultimate goal of this program is for every student to know how to ride a bike by the time they leave the district.

Hiking Leadership  SBJC worked with No Barriers to provide Hiking Leadership Training to its 18-21-year-old students. Not only do these students learn wilderness survival skills, but they are also responsible for passing that knowledge on to younger students in the district. In addition to this, the SBJC has a Walk-Everyday initiative where students take 10-minute daily walks in the community with their classmates.

Summer Internships for SBJC Students  In the summer of 2021, SBJC hired its own students to work for the district, working with the IT department in preparing technology for the new school year as well as performing maintenance duties (like painting and building furniture).

Three-Season Athletics SBJC now offers after-school athletics to high school students, including cross-country, bowling, and track and field, with plans of joining the NJSIAA by 2024.

Swimming Students in the SBJC 18-21 Transition Program participate in a swimming program at the local Boys & Girls club, a program the district plans to implement for all age-levels. 

Equestrian Program SBJC has partnered with the Bergen County Equestrian Center for all SBJC students to rotate and experience the center’s horses and activities. 

In its nomination package, the South Bergen Jointure Commission noted that it “believes that now more than ever that its children with extraordinary needs must be provided with opportunities that stretch the rubber band of possibilities — this program is the first step for SBJC to achieve its goal of unlocking the potential of every student.” 

School Leader previously recognized its other 2022 award winners: The Bound Brook High School Innovative Career Technical Education and Work Based Learning program was featured in the spring issue; and Hamilton’s Gladiator Café, which was recognized for its “Learning Life and Career Skills in the Gladiator Café” program, was featured in the summer issue. Jersey City Public Schools was honored with an exemplary recognition for its “Fun Fridays” program, and was featured in the winter issue.