“It’s not about the banner or the title…it’s about the reflection, the plans for growth, and the community that will support you.”

This has been the Morris Plains mantra throughout the Future Ready Schools – New Jersey (FRS-NJ) journey. The word journey is truly indicative of the overall experience. It is not a process. It is not an application. It is a journey into the deepest and most vulnerable aspects of your schools and your district that involves reflection and self-assessment, and ends on a horizon of hope and goals for the future. It is honestly a journey toward your own personalized version of being “Future Ready.”

Morris Plains School District is a small pre-K-8 district located in the heart of Morris County. Morris Plains educates just under 600 students across two schools, and sends students in grades nine through 12 to Morristown High School. Mountain Way School is a pre-K-2 elementary school. Borough School houses grades three through eight and is a blended building with an elementary model at the youngest grade, and a departmentalized structure from the fourth grade up. The district administrative team consists of two building principals (one of whom doubles as director of curriculum), a director of technology and innovation, a director of special services, a business administrator, and a superintendent. The board of education is incredibly supportive, the parents are actively involved, and the community is genuinely engaged.

In order to understand the journey toward becoming a Future Ready Schools–NJ certified district, it is important to know that even before Morris Plains learned about the program in early 2017, the district operated in a way that shared vision was not just a term; it was a practice. The administrative team members valued and respected one another and believed in the importance of a common goal. The district was in the process of establishing a branding model that would be used to identify it. The decision was made to use a compass as the district symbol with the tagline of “Navigating a changing world through excellence and innovation.” It was, and still is, the belief of the district that preparing children for the future is the core purpose of the profession. Lastly, the district had made a commitment to define what preparing students for the future would look like and what core practices and purposes would drive instruction. Through a study of the book Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner and a districtwide exercise of establishing the core competencies of students in Morris Plains, the district was striving to identify how to prepare students for the future.

Around this time, the administrative team attended the initial Future Ready Schools-NJ Summit held at NJIT. In a room that was packed with hundreds of attendees from across the state, we were introduced to this incredible opportunity to assess, reflect, goal set, and identify our district as “Future Ready.” After listening to information about the process, the indicators, the expectations, the timelines, and the submission requirements, we found ourselves asking, “Is this for us? Is Morris Plains in a place where we can identify ourselves as Future Ready?” The answer was, quite simply, yes.

Making the Commitment Morris Plains made the commitment to pursue Future Ready Schools – NJ Bronze Certification in early 2017. After passing a resolution at a board of education meeting, signing the school participation letters, and appointing a leader to the process, Morris Plains was ready to begin the journey.

Having never been through the process before, at first it seemed daunting. The district began by taking the self-assessment offered by the national Future Ready organization and found that, while it had many strengths, there were also areas needing improvement. This process was critical to our journey as it prompted a reflective approach throughout the submission process. It is easy, when applying for a certification or award, to focus on district strengths. It is an entirely different experience to willingly identify areas of weakness and pledge to improve upon them. As we went through the indicators during our Bronze submission, we were experiencing a mix of pride  and vulnerability — pride for the areas of strength, and vulnerability for the areas of self-identified weakness — with planned actions for growth. The reflection prompted by the process was one of the most beneficial experiences that our leadership team has ever undergone. The indicators for which we could not provide substantial evidence, and thus were our areas of weakness, ultimately became our areas of focus for the upcoming school year.

Some of the areas of strength that we were able to highlight in our Bronze submission included school/community partnerships; strong board of education partnerships; a strong administrator/union relationship; Google-certified Innovators, an overhaul of infrastructure; a 1:1 learning environment; grades 2-8, K-8 STEM Program & Innovation Lab; 20-Time projects, innovative scheduling; balanced literacy; and personalized professional development practices.

District Strengths  The Morris Plains School District has always had strong relationships with the community. As a small town with tremendous pride, there are many opportunities for community outreach for our students as well as invitations into the schools for community members, including students painting shop windows for the holidays, senior citizen luncheons and Veterans Day celebrations, as well as food, clothing, and toy drives. Additionally, there are thriving partnerships between the administrative team and the board with open communication, committees to keep members informed, and a trusting relationship. The same holds true for the administration/union relationship. As a district that values innovative practices, two district leadership members are Google-certified Innovators, bringing a unique and progressive perspective to how innovation can shape instruction. Part of the transition that was borne out of this perspective was the introduction of a 1:1 Chromebook initiative for students in grades two through eight. The purpose of introducing the Chromebook in second grade was to develop student proficiency with the device prior to the first year of testing in third grade. Other innovative practices included the introduction of a STEM class for all students in grades K-8 as well as a course called “Innovation Lab” where students are exposed to skills such as coding, programming, app development, and more. To round out the innovative approach to learning, Morris Plains provides students with an opportunity to spend 20 class periods over the course of half the school year to pursue a passion project of their choice (similar in nature to Google’s 20 percent time model where employees are given dedicated time to work on side projects of their own choosing that will benefit the company). In place for the past three years, students have embraced this opportunity to guide their own learning, discover through the iterative process, and present their final products and outcomes to their peers. To allow for the 20-Time Projects, the master schedule underwent a complete overhaul through which time was built in for the project, in addition to advisory, common planning time, block ELA and math instruction, and more. Lastly, one of the areas that Morris Plains was able to truly celebrate as part of the Bronze application process was the recognition of our personalized professional development model whereby staff set their PD goals and work with an administrator as their coach to achieve those goals.

Achieving Bronze We were thrilled to be awarded our Bronze Certification in fall 2017 at the NJSBA Workshop. We were also motivated to pursue growth in those areas that we had identified as our weaknesses.

As we embarked upon the 2017-2018 school year, we focused on improvement and growth in areas where we knew we were lacking. While this could easily be perceived as an effort to prepare for Silver certification, our motivation was genuinely growth for our district and an improved educational experience for our students. We believed in reflecting, goal setting, and growing. We focused on areas of growth specific to the gears of Future Ready Schools – NJ, allowing our plans for improvement to focus on leadership, education and classroom practice, and technology.

In February 2018, the Morris Plains School District was invited to present at the North Summit held at NJIT. This was one of three meetings intended to kick off the 2018 certification process. Shortly after this event, the Morris Plains district made the commitment to submit for Silver Certification for both schools. The certification process had changed in several ways from the initial process that we went through for Bronze Certification. There was the introduction of a school narrative, a video, rubrics to guide evidence submission, and a consolidation of indicators into a much more manageable compilation.

The Silver Process  A certification team was established to submit for Silver Certification and indicators were assigned to staff members who understood how the specific indicators connected back to the schools and district. Folders were created to compile evidence, and narratives were drafted for each indicator providing an understanding of the evidence associated with the indicator. Review sessions were scheduled, checks-ins were held, and the submission process was well underway. It was time-consuming, challenging and, at time, monotonous, but it was also collaborative, reflective, and an opportunity for growth.

In the Leadership category, the district put plans in place to improve practices that aligned with the Future Ready model. We began by taking a holistic view of our teacher evaluation model and exploring how we could add value to that experience. The district had implemented a personalized teacher observation/evaluation model in which staff members received a “coach” for the school year, an administrator with whom they could build an open and honest relationship designed to promote communication and collaboration. The district recognized the need to build deeper capacity in the administrative team to continue to drive the district forward with innovative practices, and so a reorganization of the administrative roles took place. This refreshed administrative team was critical in writing the new strategic plan, which encompassed goals and objectives that were directly related to the self-reflection that took place during the Bronze application process. Goals included fostering global awareness, and increasing personalized learning, among others. Morris Plains also increased its effort to maintain open lines of communication with parents and community members. The district implemented District Leadership Roundtable meetings where parents and community members are welcome to join in open forum discussions surrounding school-related topics. These meetings help drive discussion around the decision-making process on plans for the future.

The district worked to improve in the area of “Education and Classroom Practice.” With the addition of a curriculum revision calendar, the introduction of benchmark assessments that provided personalized data, authentic learning tasks professional development, enhanced co-curricular offerings, and a strong focus on the integration of digital citizenship across all grade levels and content areas, Morris Plains was preparing students in ways far more progressive than in the past. Many of these new practices aligned with the Future Ready indicators under the Education and Classroom Practice gear. Additionally, in focusing on the student experience, the district made a commitment to establishing a social and emotional learning (SEL) committee that would work to design and implement an SEL program to support students and staff. The district has also worked to develop learning experiences that foster global awareness and empathy, including immersive learning experiences through virtual reality and global partnerships with other schools.

The final area of focus for growth and development in the Morris Plains School District in 2018 was with our Technology areas. We redefined the roles of the technology department, placing a heavy emphasis on the relationship between technology and learning. We also established a data governance team and instituted some practices and policies that aligned with best practices related to safety, security, and social media. Through professional development for staff and scenario-based learning for students, we worked diligently to promote awareness of these critical skills.

Morris Plains School District submitted Silver Certification for both schools in late May 2018 and was notified in the fall that both schools would be awarded the certification at NJSBA Workshop 2018. We were proud, we were humbled, and most important, we weren’t done reflecting and growing.

Some of the most valuable takeaways that the Morris Plains School District has from our Future Ready Schools – NJ journey thus far include the incredible network that we have built, our ability to be vulnerable and reflective, and our goals for growth moving forward.

First, the Future Ready Schools – NJ community is just that, a community of collaboration, communication, and sharing. The FRS-NJ experience built bridges between districts that may have otherwise never collaborated. From discussing indicators and evidence to celebrating each other’s victories and accomplishments, isolation between districts is a thing of the past. FRS-NJ has bonded districts together with a common purpose, providing the very best experience to students as we prepare for the future. The second biggest takeaway is how we have fostered the ability to be reflective. This is critical to our capacity to grow as a district. We are not blind to our weaknesses. We acknowledge them, address them, and set goals to overcome them. This directly links to the third takeaway, which is setting goals moving forward. In summer 2018, the Morris Plains school district wrote its 2018-2023 District Strategic Plan. The reflective process of applying for Silver Certification prompted many of the goals in that plan.

These goals, along with district professional development goals and individual school-based goals, will drive Morris Plains school district forward in alignment with our vision of being a “Future Ready” school district.

Future Ready Schools – NJ certification is not just a banner or a title; it is an experience, an opportunity, and a paradigm shift. Future Ready Schools – NJ is community, networking events, conferences, site visits, learning opportunities, shared resources, a support system, partnerships, and relationships. In short, Future Ready Schools – NJ is a journey toward building an educational environment of promise and potential for students, staff, and the community. Every school and district stand to benefit from this experience.

Christine Lion-Bailey is director of technology & innovation in the Morris Plains school district.