In the past year, New Jersey’s students, teachers, parents, board members and administrators have become well-acquainted with digital learning. Whatever term you use — distance, cyber, online, remote or virtual — digital learning focuses on the practice of students engaging in instruction and accessing digital content from anywhere with a teacher facilitating.

The new Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools Program can help school districts to improve how they provide digital instruction for their students. Unveiled in December 2020, the program provides tools and training to support and reward schools and districts as they pursue excellence in their digital instruction. All resources are free and available online.

The Digital Schools Program operates within the framework of Sustainable Jersey for Schools, a voluntary certification program that offers resources and guidance for schools and districts as they pursue sustainability programs.

Sustainable Jersey added a slate of Digital Schools actions to its existing program. The new actions cover a wide range of topics, including professional development plans for educators, news and media literacy for students, equitable access to digital learning, personalized learning strategies, districtwide data safety and security practices, and more.

Schools that fulfill the Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification requirements can be recognized as a Digital School Star if they have made significant progress in completing the Digital Schools actions.

The primary goal of the Digital Schools effort is to support schools in their digital learning work, especially the remote home-based learning made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the first product of this initiative is a Remote Digital Learning Roadmap that provides guidance and examples of model practices and approaches that have proven successful across the country.

Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools builds on the legacy of the Future Ready Schools-New Jersey (FRS-NJ) program, which ceased operations in 2019. The FRS-NJ topical areas and content have been integrated into the Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification program as actions.

Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools Program Development Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools was created through a partnership between the New Jersey Department of Education, the New Jersey School Boards Association, and Sustainable Jersey. The program is endorsed by the New Jersey Leadership for Educational Excellence (LEE) group, which includes the major education stakeholders in the state.

A transition committee, led by school superintendents and educators experienced in both FRS-NJ and Sustainable Jersey, helped translate the 48 FRS-NJ indicators into 12 Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools actions.   

Dr. Michael Salvatore, then-superintendent of Long Branch Public Schools, served on the transition committee. All nine schools in the Long Branch Public Schools District have achieved certification through the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program and were also certified through the former FRS-NJ.

“Sustainable Jersey helped us develop a culture of sustainable practices in our schools that translates directly to benefit the child in the classroom,” said Dr. Salvatore. “When I learned that Sustainable Jersey was going to take on the Digital Schools program, I knew it would be done with the same grace and intention as their sustainability actions. Sustainable Jersey’s design process and reputation is outstanding. I am excited, because Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools will help schools develop a culture of digital practices that will be transformational.”

Joseph Isola, superintendent of Howell Township Public Schools, also participated on the transition committee. All 12 of the schools in Howell Township Public Schools achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification and were certified through the former FRS-NJ. “This effort is not about waving a new laptop, iPod or tablet around. It is about instruction and learning,” explained Isola. “At Howell Township Public Schools, we leveraged our technology and pushed forward on personalized instruction and it was a game changer for the school district. We look forward to great energy and statewide participation in Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools.”

Digital Divide  Equity is an important focus of Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools. The most vulnerable students — those with challenging home environments, with limited access to computers and broadband, who require English as a Second Language (ESL) or who have special needs — have been disproportionately impacted by remote digital learning. These students in particular have motivated schools to build a robust remote digital learning capacity to ensure these students do not fall behind when in-person teaching must be suspended.

The importance of providing equitable access to digital learning cannot be underestimated. “No matter what framework we adopt or what program we use, if we fail to lead with equity, then we will miss an opportunity to teach about injustice and the universal human experience,” said Dr. Salvatore. “If we don’t lead with equity, we will never be future ready or life ready.”

12 Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools Actions The new Digital Schools actions are a combination of the already-proven FRS-NJ indicators and the Sustainable Jersey for Schools action framework. Each action has detailed information on why the action is important, who should be involved, the resources needed, what to do and how to do it.

For schools already active in Sustainable Jersey for Schools, the new Digital Schools actions provide opportunities to earn more points and achieve higher levels of certification.

For schools which participated in the former FRS-NJ, progress made in the program during the past two years will count toward the new Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools actions if the standards are met.   

Schools that have not yet participated in either the Sustainable Jersey for Schools or FRS-NJ programs now have an opportunity to gain recognition for their sustainability and digital learning practices, while taking advantage of the free resources and support available to help them enhance their current programs.

Complete information on the Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools program and a detailed explanation of each action is available on the Sustainable Jersey for Schools website.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) considerations, related to digital learning, have been integrated into the existing Sustainable Jersey for Schools actions in the School Culture and Climate category. Blended and remote learning considerations have been incorporated into the Sustainable Jersey for Schools actions in the Student Learning category.

The 2021 Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification cycle has begun and schools have until June 21, 2021 to submit a final application. We look forward to supporting the schools and districts that are working toward a brighter future, one school at a time. For more information, please send an email to: schools@sustainablejersey.com.

Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools received startup funding from the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey Schools Boards Association, and is also funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, United States Army and ClassLink.

Laurence Cocco, the New Jersey Department of Education’s former Director of Educational Technology, leads the Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools Program.

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