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A Springfield (Union County) school district program that actively engages parents as partners to help close achievement gaps was named the winner of the 2017 School Leader Award.  The district accepted the award at Workshop 2017, held in late October.

Springfield’s “Innovate NJ: Engaging Parents as Partners in Closing Achievement Gaps” identifies students who are struggling, and brings parents and caregivers into the schools for intensive tutoring and education-focused discussion with their children.  The idea is to equip families with strategies and techniques to assist children in mastering academic standards.

Plans for the program began in 2014 when administrators used data to identify students in certain subgroups, such as economically disadvantaged students, in need of assistance to close gaps in achievement. Up to that point, working with students by themselves had produced improvement. However, Superintendent Michael Davino said it was felt that involving families would increase those gains.

The program went into operation in February 2015. To encourage inter-family support, a key component of the program’s effectiveness, the district provided dinner prior to tutoring sessions, enabling families to participate. Parents, students, and teachers used the meal time for informal discussions, which strengthened relationships. Parents also created a peer support group to discuss items brought up week-to-week.

“We had families come in with young kids, and older kids who learned along with Mom and Dad how to help younger brothers and sisters,” Davino said.

The program expanded to include ESL students, and has reached about 200 children altogether.

“NJSBA’s mission is to help school districts advance the achievement of all students. Springfield’s parent engagement program is designed to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed,” said NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod.

The district is evaluating data to determine the program’s impact. Surveys of teachers and parents have so far shown positive results: Participating students demonstrated high levels of growth in class participation and academic independence, compared to peers who did not participate. Parents said they developed stronger connections to the school community and support systems with other parents.

Next, Davino said, the district plans are to use the InnovateNJ model to handle HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying.)

“I’d like to give kudos to our board of education for supporting a program like this,” Davino said. “One thing we like to feel about ourselves is that we are inclusive. Rather than take the position as to why a diverse population is not performing at desired levels, let’s look into how we can assist them. We think this program goes a long way in that direction.”

The School Leader Award is presented by NJSBA each year to showcase creative programs from New Jersey schools. Entries are judged on level of innovation, how well the program addresses specific needs of students, the relationship of the program to the state’s New Jersey Student Learning Standards, and results.  Programs must be in place for two full years to qualify.

Nominations for the 2018 School Leader awards will be open in late April and available through the NJSBA website.