After almost two years of dealing with school closures, quarantined students/educators and the ongoing disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of establishing and maintaining resilient digital learning policies, practices and technologies has never been greater.

We are at the stage where we have become skilled enough to appreciate the difference between online learning and high-quality online learning, and we appreciate the difficulty inherent in achieving high standards using digital platforms. Regardless of these unprecedented challenges, the need to incorporate digital learning into everyday pedagogy in all curriculum areas remains a priority to help prepare all students to be successful in an ever-evolving digital world.

To support schools in their digital learning planning and implementation, Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools was launched in December 2020 by incorporating a slate of digital learning actions and a new tier of recognition (the Digital Schools Star) into the existing Sustainable Jersey for Schools program.

The program continues the work of the Future Ready Schools-New Jersey program, which ceased operations in 2019, by providing support for schools to prepare all students for college and careers in our digital society. 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 group, which includes the state’s major education stakeholders. All resources and support are free, and the no-cost registration in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program makes schools eligible for grants that help the schools complete actions that contribute toward certification.

Becoming a Digital Schools Star A Digital Schools Star demonstrates the mindful implementation of effective digital learning and communication tools, resources and practices — a commitment that is evident in its mission, culture, classrooms and interactions with its stakeholders. Star schools document their successful digital learning strategies in the action areas of leadership, learning practices, technology access, school culture and climate and student learning to qualify for star recognition.

In the first year, 37 schools were awarded Digital Schools Star Recognition. Thirty-nine schools had applied for Star Recognition, and the 95% success rate speaks to the quality of the schools’ applications and the comprehensive support that the professional Sustainable Jersey for Schools staff provides to schools seeking acknowledgement for exemplary sustainability and digital learning practices.

Howell Township Public Schools has the distinction of being the only multi-school district with all schools earning silver-level certification as well as Digital School Star Recognition. Over the past few years, the district has received $78,000 in Sustainable Jersey for Schools grants, funded by the New Jersey Education Association and the PSEG Foundation, which helped Howell schools in various sustainability and digital learning projects that contributed to its certification applications.

Joseph Isola, superintendent of Howell Township Public Schools, explained, “The Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools program focuses on developing a culture of sustainable practices within instruction and learning. Through the certification process, the program allows districts to review their current digital practices and reflect on developing areas of their work. In partnering with the Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools program, Howell Township Schools were able to leverage their technology and push forward on personalized instruction, while incorporating the action steps within the digital learning roadmap. This work has proved to benefit our students and our entire community.”

The new Digital Schools actions, introduced in December 2020, cover the following areas:

DIGITAL LEARNING LEADERSHIP

  • Commitment to Digital Learning District-level planning commitments across all digital education areas.
  • Community Engagement Communication plan and activities regarding digital learning.
  • District Professional Development Plan District support for professional learning to build capacity for growth and expand staff capabilities to serve students.
  • Equitable Access to Digital Learning Increase understanding of student needs, focus on underserved populations and assurance of equitable access to resources for all students.

DIGITAL LEARNING PRACTICES

  • Authentic Application of Digital Learning Tools and Content Focus on tech tools and applications proven to foster student growth, provide immediate feedback, differentiate instruction and connect learning to real world problems.
  • Digital Citizenship Student comprehension of their responsibilities when using technology and when accessing online resources and people (includes news and media literacy).
  • Personalized Learning and Growing Independent Learners Focus on student voice and choice and helping students become independent learners.
  • Professional Growth and Collaboration Professional learning implementation at the teacher level and creation of professional learning networks.

DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY ACCESS

  • Data Safety and Security Policy Data governance and security and student and educator data safety protocols.
  • Digital Device Life Cycle Management Inventory management and environmentally responsible waste disposal.
  • Infrastructure: Provide broadband, Wi-Fi, and servers with a process for assessment.
  • Support for Digital Teaching and Learning Provides student and teacher tech support and digital devices; ensures that use is aligned with district mission, curriculum and instruction goals.

Digital Learning elements have also been incorporated into the Sustainable Jersey for Schools — School Culture and Climate Actions, including:

  • Inclusive Environments Where All Can Thrive.
  • School Culture and Climate Needs Assessment.
  • Social Emotional Learning Integrated Unit.

The importance of inclusion, school climate and culture, and social-emotional learning has only increased due to last year’s period of pandemic-forced remote digital learning. Acting with the guidance of the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Certification Standards Committee and social-emotional learning experts, infusing digital learning resources into these actions helps schools meet the current and future inclusion and social-emotional learning needs of students and educators.

The Student Learning Action category has been updated to provide digital learning resources for incorporating sustainability and climate change into most New Jersey curriculum areas and grade levels. These 14 Education for Sustainability actions cover pre-K to high school in most curriculum areas. With the recent New Jersey Student Learning Standards requirement that climate change education be incorporated into all New Jersey school curricula at all grade levels by September 2022, the Education for Sustainability actions can provide helpful guidance and resources for educators working to revise their curriculum to meet this new requirement.

We urge all schools and districts to consider participating in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program and also seek Digital Schools Star Recognition. Participation is voluntary, the resources and support are free, and schools and districts become eligible to apply for grants simply by registering with Sustainable Jersey for Schools. The program provides tools, training and funding to empower schools and districts seeking to respond to the existential issues of the 21st century: 1) equitable access to digital learning and opportunity for all students, and 2) preparing students for a world where climate change is fast becoming a reality.

The initial deadline for the 2022 Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification cycle was Jan. 13, 2022. The cycle includes up to three rounds of application submission, review and feedback. Schools have until June 15, 2022, to submit a final application. Sustainable Jersey staff offer individual technical assistance sessions for district and/or school groups that need help starting their Sustainable Jersey for Schools and/or Digital Schools journey. Sustainable Jersey for Schools staff look forward to supporting the schools and districts that are working toward a brighter future, one school at a time.

Contact Sustainable Jersey for more information.

Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools receives major funding from the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey School Boards Association. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is an underwriter. Amazon is a Gold Sponsor, the United States Army and the Public Consulting Group, LLC are Silver Sponsors, and ClassLink, edWeb, NJM Insurance Group, South Jersey Gas and Elizabethtown Gas are Bronze Sponsors.

Randall Solomon is executive director of Sustainable Jersey and Laurence Cocco is senior program consultant at Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools.

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