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The Magna Awards program is a national recognition program that honors school board best practices and innovative programs that advance student learning. The awards are administered by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), and a panel of independent judges reviews programs for qualities such as school district leadership, creativity and commitment to student achievement.

The nominations, which are open to any school district in the country, are judged in three enrollment categories: under 5,000 students; 5,000-20,000 students and more than 20,000 students. In each category there is one grand prize winner, five additional “first place” winners, and five more “honorable mention” winners.

This year, two New Jersey school districts were recognized by the NSBA Magna Awards with first place awards. Hanover Park Regional High School District in East Hanover was honored for its “Gallery Walk” program in the “Under 5,000” category; while Piscataway Township Schools was recognized in the 5,000-20,000 enrollment category for its ESL program. The Piscataway program is featured here, while the July/August 2016 issue of School Leader, available online at www.njsba.org/news-information/school-leader, contains an article about the Hanover Park program. 

The Piscataway district was recognized for its comprehensive English as a Second Language (ESL) program, which serves students from preschool through high school. 

Within the district, more than 62 primary languages are spoken. Immersing students into both conversational and academic language, and providing cultural guidance to their families, is essential. The preschool program offers language immersion, health services, and community connections for parents. The elementary program embeds more than 60 ESL-endorsed teachers, allowing more students to remain in mainstream classrooms.

The high school ESL Academy builds upon services available during the regular school day.  After school and on Saturdays, classroom work is reviewed to identify language deficiencies.

The academy also reaches out to student’s families, offering English classes, field trips, job application help, and interviewing skills – and assists parents in navigating the education system and college application process.

Hard measurements – graduation rates, test scores, and AP participation and test scores – are very positive and climbing higher. Soft results – family immersion into the school community, cross-cultural friendships, and leadership roles for ESL students – are equally important. The district consistently reaches its goal of having preschool ESL students exit the program for mainstream classes by the end of first grade. In just two years, Piscataway doubled its percentage of Hispanic students taking AP courses from 9 percent in 2013 to 18 percent in 2015. Hispanic students also saw a rise in AP overall scores from 3.38 to 3.81, with 56 percent of these students scoring in this qualifying range. Just this year, the district was named a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

In building the ESL program, the Piscataway school board made early intervention for language acquisition a priority, supporting ESL teachers within its preschools, using a direct-mail community outreach to announce grant programs aimed at low-income families, and using Title III Immigrant Funds to support preschool for 3-year-old students along with those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The board supports ongoing on-site professional development for ESL-endorsed teachers and additional student instruction after school, on Saturdays, and in summer programs, including immersion camps for ESL students. Knowing that transportation can be an issue, the board approved free busing for Saturday programs for students as well as for their families.

“The ESL program’s success is due to the hard work and commitment of our entire staff and the students and families we serve,” said Teresa M. Rafferty, Piscataway superintendent, in a statement released in March. “In addition to the fine work and dedication of our ESL staff, every year, more of our teachers return to school to earn the additional educational credits they need to become ESL-endorsed.”