BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - In preparation for the Berkeley Heights Board of Education election, questions were submitted to each candidate to give residents insight into why they are running and how they feel they can contribute to the Berkeley Heights school district.

There are five candidates running for three open seats on the Board of Education.  The candidates are incumbents Robert Cianciulli and Helen Kirsch, and first time BOE candidates Michael D'Aquila, Dr. Shengwu Du, and Angela Penna.


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Why are you Running for the Board?

I started my volunteer career at Mary Kay McMillin (MKM) Early Childhood Center as a Special Education Liaison for the PTO in 2007 when my younger son Michael entered the pre-kindergarten program. At that time, there wasn't an appropriate program available for his special needs in district. His only options were to go out of district. I wanted to keep him in our district, so I decided to research the feasibility of bringing an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program to MKM and reached out too many experts in the field. I worked with the district, teachers and child study team to implement the inaugural ABA program at MKM. This program continues to serve many special needs children in our community.

That experience led me to volunteer for various positions in the schools and our town. Organizations include the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) as Vice President and President, and the Berkeley Heights Education Foundation (BHEF) as a trustee. I want to continue my service to our schools, this time as a Board of Education member. I feel that my professional experience, organization and leadership skills, and relationships from my many years in the PTO, and my unique perspective as a mother of 3 children can be an asset to our Board.

What unique skills or knowledge will you bring to the Board?

First of all I would bring my organizational and leadership skills. For the last 10 years, I have been PTO Vice President at Columbia Middle School (CMS) and Governor Livingston (GL), and PTO President at MKM, Mountain Park, CMS and the District PTO, as well as a trustee for the BHEF. I have built strong relationships with many stakeholders including administrators, teachers, parents and board members. I have also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to enhance the educational experience of our children, improved PTO communications and applied best practices district wide.

Next, I would bring my unique perspective. As a mother of 3, one a GL graduate with high academic achievement, a Junior who’s a 3-year varsity athlete and a freshman with special needs, I have a unique perspective and can be the voice for parents, “our voice”, on the Board. I have direct experience with the great things the district offers to our children, but I’m also keenly aware of our shortcomings.

In addition, I would bring my professional experience. My background in construction project management, and my current career as a realtor, help to provide a foundation for being an effective board member. Thorough understanding of the importance of budgeting, financial management and strategic planning can help to ensure the district is always moving forward and improving the educational outcomes of our children, while at the same time being fiscally responsible.

What do you think the top three challenges facing the District are at this time? How can the district address these challenges?

One challenge is ensuring ALL our students achieve successful educational outcomes. Over the last few years, the district has enhanced the curriculum to fit the needs of our highest achieving students. We have also extended our offerings around Special Education. While I know more can be done to serve those two populations, I feel that there is a middle and probably largest share of our students who currently can’t take advantage of our most challenging academic offerings nor do they need special services. These are the students that may need Instructional Review in elementary school to catch up to their peers or may have just missed the grades to make Project Connect freshman year. As a district, we need to come up with strategies that address the needs of this population including: improved Instructional Review that eliminates the need for private tutors, extending Project Connect to sophomore year to allow more students to qualify for Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes during that critical Junior year, and more career electives to address the needs of an ever-changing workforce to name a few.

Another challenge is implementing strategic projects such as full-day kindergarten and Media Center upgrades in a financially responsible manner. We have several projects in the pipeline and careful consideration is needed to ensure we’re spending money on projects that will definitely improve the educational outcomes of our children.

Finally, addressing future contract negotiations in a way that brings all the concerns of stakeholders (Board, teachers, parents and administrators) to the table, while positioning the district for constant improvement. Improving communications to keep parents informed throughout the process would also be an enhancement I would propose.

What are your thoughts about the ongoing negotiations between the BOE and BHEA, and would you recommend any process improvements for future negotiations?  

This last negotiation process has dragged on longer than any stakeholder would have liked. This isn’t the first time a negotiation has been contentious, but it was the first time its effects were truly felt by our school children. While I’m hopeful that negotiations will be finalized soon after the fact-finding report is received, I feel that the Board has a long road ahead to reset the now frayed relationship with our teachers, in preparation for next time. Through my work in the PTO’s and BHEF, I have built strong relationships with administrators, teachers, parents and members of the Board. I think that this could be a key asset in the effort to rebuild confidence and trust between the Board and our teachers.

To prevent this situation from happening again, I would also suggest we begin contract negotiations earlier in the school year to lay out the goals from both parties and provide enough time to reach a mutually agreeable outcome. This could avoid negative repercussions snowballing into the time of year when students and faculty devote more time outside of the classroom to address needs such as test preparation and recommendation letters for colleges, internships and job applications.

Other alternatives to be considered would be review and assess what surrounding towns have done, increasing the length of contracts or even forming a task force to look at what best practices can be learned from across the state.

The BOE is considering the implementation of full-day kindergarten - do you think this makes sense for our District?  Why or why not?  If Full Day kindergarten is implemented, how would you recommend that the district pay for it?

This topic has come up through the years, and in the latest presentation in March of this year, our professional team which included Mrs. Corley-Hand (MKM Principal) and Mrs. Gardner (Director of Special Services) laid out the educational case for full-day kindergarten. In their research, it was discovered that adding three hours of instruction to kindergarten allows for broader and deeper curriculum coverage, a variety of instructional groupings, and diagnosis and intervention of learning challenges. They also found that only 6% of districts in NJ provide only half-day kindergarten, as we currently do. Not just as a parent but also as a Realtor, I feel full-day kindergarten makes sense in our district. The bigger question is, how do we implement it in a way that doesn’t have a severe impact to our budget and to our taxpayers. There-fore, the option of a phased approach starting with a Pilot for 2020 is appealing to me.

A full-paid implementation for all kindergarten students in 2020 entails significant changes to our current infrastructure and may even impact building assignments for current 2-5 grade students. I feel the Pilot is a more prudent approach that would allow our administrators and teachers to learn from a smaller sample of students, and work out any issues that may arise, before deploying such a significant change to all kindergarten students.

Do you believe that the current use of technology (including iPads and Chromebooks) in the District is appropriate, and would you recommend any changes?

Wanted or not, technology is ubiquitous in the daily lives of most children in the district. The way content is delivered has significantly changed since the day most parents went to school where textbooks and paper handouts were the main resources used for instruction. Today, our children are exposed to media technologies that were the stuff of sci-fi movies when we were growing up, from 3D TVs/movies to AR-VR video games. My opinion is that technology should be used in the classroom to enhance the learning experience but not to replace instruction.

As part of my work in the BHEF, we have funded many technology grants that we felt would enhance the educational experience of our children. For example, we funded an iPad app that allows students to interactively trace the path of blood through a beating heart and the network of blood vessels that supplies blood to the body. The combination of the instruction from the teacher and the enhanced experience via technology allowed our 7th grade students to have a better understanding of blood flow through the circulatory system compared to just reading a textbook or looking at slides.

However, I understand the concerns of parents, especially those in the younger grades, around too much exposure to technology. Any parent who feels a teacher is using technology, as a means to replace instruction, should be able to bring up his/her concern to the teacher, building principal or subject supervisor.

What is your opinion on district Media Center upgrades? 

I attended the presentation on Media Center upgrades, and while I feel that our children could benefit from upgraded media center facilities, we have to be careful to balance this need with the other priorities in the district, such as (full-day kindergarten).