Publishers Note: New Jersey school boards are comprised of volunteer elected officials who dedicate time to their community schools for three year terms. The nine member boards are unpaid and are in control of budgets that vastly exceed their municipal counterparts. In Middletown, they recently held their regular meeting. TAPinto Middletown reporter Wilson Conde was there to cover it all.

MIDDLETOWN, NJ - Middletown Township community members and parents of the Middletown Public School District got an insider’s view on upcoming initiatives for high school students, the latest on some of the construction projects throughout Middletown schools and how the district plans to come up with next school year’s budget during the township’s Board of Education’s most recent meeting.

The Board of Education meeting, held on Jan. 15th at Middletown High School North’s Library, opened with condolences for the family of a former High School South graduate who passed away earlier this year; a brief mentioning of its “adopt-a-school” program for Board members to get involved in the activities/events of the schools they adopt, and votes to approve the meeting schedule and committee assignments.

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Then, Steven Siegel of Spiezle Architectural Group gave an update on a series of school improvement projects it was working on, which included among other things, installing solar panels in every school except Leonardo Elementary School because of the lack of available roof space there.  Siegel said the projects cost $11.2 million but are designed to pay for themselves in the long run through the expected savings on electric bills resulting from the solar panels being a self-sufficient power source for the schools

“It’s a very successful project for the district and the taxpayers,” Siegel said.

Next, Middletown’s High School Principals and Vice Principals discussed a proposed “senior flex” program in which some high school seniors would be allowed to attend school only part of the school day if they engage in either an independent study or community service project, a job that helps them prepare or pay for college/career training, or the dual enrollment program at Brookdale.

“Many seniors who already have the academic course credits they need to graduate often don’t necessarily buy into getting all of these other courses that they don’t really need,” Middletown High School South Prinicpal Matt Kirkpatrick said. “They don’t see the intrinsic value of it.”

Middletown High School North Principal Patricia Vari-Cartier said she wanted to make sure as many people as possible are involved in forming these programs, and expand opportunities for seniors as much as possible.

“We want to create and give them options that don’t exist yet,” she said.

Kim Pickus, the District’s Assistant Superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction, then talked about an initiative to allow students to begin taking AP courses as early as their freshman year of high school to better prepare them for college, as well as discussed ways to increase participation in the AP exams given at the end of the courses.

Pickus said that while no specific strategies have been decided yet, the approaches other districts are using include reimbursing students who score above a certain level during the exam, waiving the exam fees for students with financial hardships, simply paying all of the exam fees on the students’ behalf, and giving reduced course credit for not taking the exam;

“It’s a work in progress,” she said.

William O. George III, the District Superintendent, said research has shown that students who start the AP courses with the expectation that they would take the exam set from the beginning are more likely to make a strong effort in taking and passing the exam, and that the AP courses are now centered on making sure students are well prepared for the exams through smaller assessments done throughout the year.

“It’s not a cram like it used to be,” he said.

In addition, AP coursework also helps students better prepare for college admissions exams and college-level coursework, George said.

“Those who take the formative (AP) tests are more likely to need an outside tutoring program for the SATs, because they learn the skills for that more naturally (through taking the AP program),” George said.

This was followed by a presentation from Board of Ed. member Amy Gallagher on the upcoming school year’s budgeting process.  This year’s budget planning process will account for an expected cut in state aid because of reduced enrollment for the past several years; and the Board of Ed must propose a draft budget by March 20th, as well as hold a public hearing by May 6th, Gallagher said.

“It will be a fun couple of months,” Gallagher said.

Finally, Board members discussed how to go about developing a “strategic plan” for after 2020; in other words, a set of ideas on the community’s hopes and visions for the schools in the five years after 2020 - as well as how to gather as much grassroots input as possible for that process.   

During the discussion, Board member Joan Minnuies said the process should be as open and free-flowing as possible to local community members, and that an outside panel to lead public discussions would foster more trust in the process by the community.

“We really need the buy-in from the community,” Minnuies said. “If we want the community involved, we would really need an outside group, because if it’s the Board who does the strategic plan, then they’re going to think ‘we already have a plan, so why should (they) go to a meeting?’”

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