Berkeley Heights School Board Views $1.2 Million Investment in School Security; Host of New Courses Mapped for Columbia Middle School Students

Columbia Middle School Principal Frank Geiger outlines new course offerings during Thursday's Berkeley Heights Board of Education meeting. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
Anti-Bullying Coordinator Kevin Morra presents the HIB statistics and outlines preventive and educational programs for dealing with HIB Credits: Bob Faszczewski

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ—The Berkeley Heights Board of Education, as part of the 2017-2018 budget process, is expected to be presented with a proposal to spend $1,175,200 on security improvements affecting all six of the township’s schools.

Expected to be proposed, in a spending plan due to be discussed at the board’s March 9 meeting, will be $94,500 for security camera upgrades, $110,700 for keyless entry systems and $970,000 for construction of “security vestibules.”

Superintendent of schools Judith Rattner noted at Thursday’s school board meeting that, as a result of the improvements, there will be a keyless entry system at each school that will enable all doors to be kept locked and entry cards will be issued to each staff member.

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The secure vestibule, the superintendent added, will consist of two sets of doors. Visitors will be buzzed into the first set of doors. There will be a window in the vestibule allowing the visitor to communicate with the school staff and, if a visitor needs entrance to the school because, for example, they have an appointment with a specific person in the school, the second set of doors will be unlocked for them.

Also, if a parent, for example, needs to drop off a student lunch or a musical instrument, they will be able to leave the items in the vestibule for pickup.

The school superintendent noted that the cost of the security improvements would be conducted by a lease-purchase agreement spread over five years.

School and township police officials who gave a safety presentation at the board meeting, listed the following key components of the overall school security system:

  • Target hardening—to make the buildings less susceptible to danger.
  • Surveillance systems
  • Secure vestibules
  • Locking systems
  • Building maintenance

Township police chief John DiPasquale added that, in addition to the continued presence of one of his officers as a school district safety officer who establishes a rapport with teachers, other staff and students, other members of the township force conduct periodic walk-throughs of school premises.

Rattner added that police personnel from other communities also conduct joint exercises with Berkeley Heights police in township schools so they will be able to provide coordinated assistance if needed.

Additionally, under state law, the schools are required to conduct one fire drill per month and a school safety/security drill per month in addition to two lockdown drills, two active shooter drills, two non-fire evacuation drills and two bomb threat drills.

Also, each staff member undergoes yearly training and school district crisis response manuals are developed with input from local police, fire and office of emergency management personnel and updated annually.

In addition to the security upgrade measures, board president Douglas Reinstein noted that the school body is looking into options for financing replacement of the track and turf fields at Governor Livingston High School.

Reinstein said both facilities are nearing the end of what is considered their useful lives and it would be more efficient to replace both at the same time to avoid a great deal of disruption in school activities.

The board president added the athletic facilities project possibly could be completed with a lease-purchase agreement similar to that under consideration for the securities improvements, the board could finance the project by taking money out of its capital reserve or the school body could consider what can be done to pay for it within its upcoming budget considering the state-mandated 2 percent cap on spending.

On another matter, Columbia Middle School principal Frank Geiger and members of his staff outlined a number of new courses that will be instituted in the next two years in the sixth through eighth grades.

Geiger noted there will be an increased emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), with a new sixth grade course,  and courses will continue to meet state curriculum requirements.

Sixth grade continuing and newly-instituted courses will be computer applications, foundations of art and personal finance, while general music and band, choir and orchestra will remain.

New courses in the seventh and eighth grades will include music and technology, robotics and video game design in addition to offerings in marketing and product design, beginner guitar and, in the eighth grade, an enhanced course in public speaking that will enable those who take it to audition for speaking positions at graduation.

The beginner guitar course, Geiger noted, was developed with the help of education foundation members who had taught the subject matter in a club at the school.

He added the robotics course also would evolve from a previous club activity.

In other curriculum news, assistant superintendent of schools Scott McKinney outlined the AP Capstone Program that will be developed over two years at the high school.

The first year would feature AP Seminar, during which students wouldl learn to:

  • Investigate real world topics from multiple perspectives
  • Carefully analyze information, write evidence-based arguments and effectively communicate them.
  • Work independently and with a team to research a topic, develop a written report and deliver a presentation.

Topics slated to be covered include: Aesthetics, democracy, education, the environment, revolution, technology and sustainability.

In AP Research, starting in the fall of 2018, students would:

  • Design, plan, and conduct a year-long mentored, research-based investigation
  • Apply research methods and practices to address a real-world topic selected by the student
  • Write a college-level research paper
  • Present and orally defend research findings methodology.

McKinney said students will take advanced placement tests at the end of each course, and colleges have committed to allowing course completion for advanced placement credit and they also have said they will use course completion as a consideration in their placement processes.

He added out of an original 50 students invited to an initial program presentation based on “AP Potential,” grade point averages, Preliminary Scholastic Aptitute Test scores and other factors, a total of 12 students have been selected to participate in the initial program.

On another topic, district technology supervisor Mike D. Skara listed the following items planned for 2017-2018:

  • Replacement of classroom workstations with 189 Windows HP Elite desktops for $52,920
  • Expanding the Chromebook initiative in the third to fifth grades with 559 Lenovo N22 Chromebboks—$108,446 and $13,500 for secure storage
  • An update of the television production studio with five NOC computers—$6,500
  • Eight Epson BrightLink projectors, for a more interactive and efficient experience than whiteboards—$12,328
  • Adding 25 MacBook Air 13.3 laptops to enable installation and use of IPad applications—$23,725
  • In the sixth to eighth grades, 580 IPad Air 2s with keyboards for $240,700.

In another presentation, district anti-bullying coordinator Kevin Morra presented the report on harassment, intimidation and bullying for the period from September 1 to December 31, 2016.

Investigations totaled 35, compared to 34 in 2015 and 54 in 2014, while HIB incidents increased to 16 overall compared to 12 in the previous two years.

Columbia showed the largest number of investigations, with 19 and the largest number of HIB incidents with 13.

Responding to resident inquiries, Morra said the Columbia incidents were being studied, but district officials wanted to examine statistics over four to five years to determine if the 2016 figures were an anomaly or a trend.

Morra also outlined a number of student training programs and parent instructional programs on state law concering HIB that were being conducted in reponse to the figures.

Complete figures are available in the school district’s central office.

On another matter, the school board introduced a revised policy on public participation at meeting which removed the requirement for residents who speak to give their street address.

Board members agreed to amend the proposed revision to delete a suggestion that those who speak be limited to “objective criticism” of board actions but adding that those with grievances should be urged to go through proper school channels before bringing complaints to the board.

The school body also agreed to change the revision so that students and those under 18 years old who speak at board meetings only would be required to give their first names.

After residents raised questions about live-streaming and recording of public remarks at board meetings, Reinstein noted the Open Public Meetings Act restricted school boards from limiting the recording of public meetings.

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