Irene LeFebvre, who has served on the Boonton Town Board of Education in Morris County for 26 years, and is its current president, was elected as NJSBA’s president at the May Delegate Assembly.
Her county and state school board service includes serving on the NJSBA Board of Directors, as president of the Morris County Schools Boards Association, as chair of NJSBA’s Special Education Committee, and as a member of several Association task forces, among other activities. A former high school math teacher, she also served as assistant principal, principal and director of educational programs at Passaic County Educational Services Commission.
She and her husband have seven children and 12 grandchildren.
Recently School Leader spoke with her about her hopes for New Jersey’s students, and NJSBA as the pandemic fades and the state slowly returns to more normal times.
Our students had to handle remote learning, as well as hybrid and in-person instruction this year. How do you think they did?
I was talking to my grandkids about it, and it was interesting. Their reactions to remote learning really varied. I have four granddaughters in high school. Two were pretty neutral about remote learning, one really liked it and one struggled with it. But as soon as she got got back in the classroom towards the last part of the year, she was fine.
I also have young grandchildren, in early elementary school. Their reactions varied, too.
I’d say the ones who were affected by remote learning were affected more emotionally than academically, but it really did affect their motivation.
It’s important they are back in the classroom. They learn social interaction, and how to debate, discuss and reason by trying out ideas in a safe place, which is a classroom, with a moderator who appreciates all of them, and lets them explore ideas with their peers.
I think parents have done a phenomenal job of supporting the schools and keeping their kids on task at home and doing all that kind of stuff. But that doesn’t change the emotional impact on the kids. This coming year is going to be such a challenge.
What kinds of challenges will districts face?
I think school boards will have to put a lot of focus this coming year on social-emotional health. At NJSBA we’re already focusing on that — we have a task force on mental health.
Part of what districts will face is — how do they pass on the school culture that did not naturally get passed on? Our high school seniors this year didn’t get the chance to interact with the juniors and socialize with them, and teach them how to be the presidents of clubs and organizations, while the juniors were vice presidents. That happens at every grade level. The fifth-graders didn’t get the chance to help the fourth-graders at field day — or whatever districts have. So part of the healing process is going to be passing on the culture of the school.
But once there are signs that is happening, the healing will take place. And I think it’s going to happen a lot faster than we think it’s going to happen, because kids are a whole lot more resilient than we are as adults and they bounce back faster.
So it may be that a lot of our focus might be on the adults, making sure that they are comfortable and have time to take a deep breath.
I think that’s one of the mistakes we may make, although we have to hit the ground running in September, not everything is going to be perfect in September.
We need to come back in September, and grow back into being the comfortable, supportive places that schools have always been and be the second home that kids need them to be. I think that’s important.
A big issue for our parents and our communities is that our schools have to have a wholesome, supportive climate where every child is welcome, no matter what their background is. It has to be a place where all our kids are supported, and have the programs that that child needs in order to be successful, both academically and emotionally.
Overall, New Jersey schools are an academic wonder. But we have pockets of kids who need support in districts, and we have pockets of districts across the state that need support.
New Jersey School Boards Association is going to be there to offer resources and support to boards. We know from the literature and from the research that if a board is effective and if a superintendent is well-matched to the board, the district thrives, and the academics work because everyone is comfortable.
So an important part of moving forward is to take pride in what we’ve accomplished, but then to look at ourselves really seriously and see what we need.
All ethnicities, and all genders and all languages need to be accepted in districts. Students who speak English and those who speak English haltingly need to be able to respect each other and to learn from one another. If we create that acceptance of diversity, and we create a culture that embraces everyone’s strengths, then our schools will be places where every child and every teacher feels safe and comfortable. If you are safe and comfortable you can learn.
I worked with a very smart woman who said, “if you don’t feed them and don’t make them feel safe, you can’t teach them anything.” She didn’t just mean feeding them meals, although you need to make sure breakfast and lunch are there. You need to feed their emotions and take care of the needs they have for acceptance, for approval, and to feel comfortable.
Of course, schools have to have safety and security measures in place, and certainly NJSBA has been a leader in the whole movement to increase school security. There are lots of resources for any district that needs them. Most districts have already implemented many security measures.
But I believe if a child feels safe, both physically and emotionally, then kids lap up the academics. Every kid wants to learn and wants to please the adults they care about, as long as those basic principles are in place.
How is your school district handling summer education?
We have summer enrichment and engagement opportunities for all grade levels, but surprisingly, there is not as much of a need for it at the high school level. The high school kids have worked really hard, and the high school staff worked hard to assist the students to make up any work they missed, and engage them in a variety of sessions at the end of the half-day session, and on Saturdays, to help them catch up.
I don’t think we are the only district that is doing this, but we are embracing the idea that this is not a time for remediation, this is a time for advancing learning. We have to look at where we are and advance from there. The talent of the teachers in the state of New Jersey, the commitment of the board, and the commitment that the state and federal government have both made with funding will all help kids advance to the point where they are ready to take on the next set of learning goals.
I am very optimistic. It is going to be a different kind of year, again, but it’s going to be a very satisfying year, where we can say, look what we’ve accomplished!
You have taken over as NJSBA president at an unusual time in history. Where do you think NJSBA should be headed?
Dr. Feinsod, Mike McClure and the other officers kept us on track during the pandemic as an association that was actively working to meet the needs of its members. I thank them for their leadership during this challenging time. So many members have expressed their appreciation for all that NJSBA did for them during the pandemic.
Alongside of that, we’re going to be focused on climate and culture in the districts, and we’re going to be focused on how to make districts as open and all-embracing of diversity as they should be.
As an organization, we also need to make sure that whenever we have an opportunity for involvement by board members, that we get the word out to all board members and make sure every board member from every part of the state feels comfortable participating.
The virtual county meetings were one of the good things to come out of the pandemic. I certainly don’t want to stay with all virtual meetings, but they were a way for someone who lives in Morris County to attend a meeting in Cape May. We are going to be careful as an organization not to eliminate that opportunity.
In some ways we are disappointed that the October NJSBA Workshop this year will still be virtual. But I have to tell you I have also heard many people say, we’re happy it is virtual, because I never could attend before. So as we start planning for the next Workshop — in 2022 — the question will be how do we make programs available virtually as well as in-person? It is a transition for us, just like it’s a transition for the kids going back to school. We don’t want to lose one of the few good things that we got out of the pandemic, which was being well-connected through technology.
Are there new initiatives that you think NJSBA should focus on this year?
I think this year we already have a lot on our plate. This year, we should focus on getting everybody back to school, and making sure all the districts and board members have the support that they need.
Let’s make it a year of accomplishments in the classrooms and within the districts in all different areas of social-emotional learning, as well as academics. And while we’re doing that, let’s look seriously at the issues of diversity and equity, and have true acceptance and support across the board.
If you asked me that same question this time next year, I might have some other specific ideas. The NJSBA presidency is a two-year term, and you have to look at it that way.
Eventually, I would love to look at some of the groups of children throughout the state who perhaps are not being supported as positively as they could be.
A concern that I always had when I was working full-time was the issue of the school-to prison pipeline, because that is a population of students for whom maybe we could better meet their needs. I also think there are populations of special needs kids whose needs are not always met to the optimum level. Special education is something I have always felt passionate about. So as we move forward, perhaps that is something we look at more next year.
As an organization I would also like to revisit some of the past initiatives — go back and look at the task force reports we have done in past years, and see what the outcomes were, and whether there are things we need to do next. We have a lot of new board members since some of those task force reports were done — do they know about those reports, or do we need to publicize them more? Is the information still current or should it be updated?
All of that should keep us all busy.
What do you think parents are concerned about for next year?
From the parents I have talked to, they are worried about their own child being happy, accepted and competent when they go back to school.
It’s a little like in September, all parents are going to be like kindergarten parents. Remember the butterflies we had in our stomachs, and some of the tears we were hiding when we dropped off our child for the first day of kindergarten? We wondered if anyone could understand them and love them as much as we did. We all feel that way about our kids this September, because each of us wants our kid’s education to be what we always dreamed it would be before the pandemic got in the way.
So everybody’s going to be a little nervous in September. But every generation faces challenges and overcomes them, and that’s how we have built the resiliency this country is known for.