This story is the third in a series of profiles highlighting Camden public school leaders. The first focused on Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) Principal Loray Vaughan. The second profiled Mastery Molina Upper Elementary School Principal Rickia Reid, The series is sponsored by the Camden Education Fund.
CAMDEN, NJ — It has been over a year since Janine Casella has seen her students in person. While the principal of Cooper’s Poynt Family School in Camden strives to get face time with Zoom calls with her 425 students, it’s evident the veteran educator misses those personal interactions.
“We were having the conversation today about when schools did close, we realized at that point how much support we were for these students,” she said. “We were just discussing today we can’t wait to have them back so we can stop worrying about where so-and-so is, and making sure this person has a device.”
Cooper’s Poynt has a 10-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio for the pre-K to 8th graders. Two-thirds of the students are economically disadvantaged, and nearly all are either Latinx or Black.
When the pandemic first closed Cooper’s Poynt last March, it threw Casella and her team for a loop. Principals like Casella rely on lesson plans and contingencies based on known factors. Variables like prolonged delays and developing guidance from policymakers can complicate these. “Wait and plan” is not something Casella likes to do.
While people tried to wait out the first wave at home, there was one major system Casella utilized: communication through social media. Most teachers and active parents probably remember phone chains to quickly disseminate information on school closures or emergencies. Cooper’s Poynt uses electronic methods to keep families in the loop. Go to the website and there’s a pop-up screen with posted alerts. Casella also credited an active Facebook group with helping to update parents, along with Instagram and other mobile apps.
Casella gave tremendous credit to the effort put in by parents since the start of the pandemic. She witnessed how the families handled all the shifting expectations.
“I really saw them in a different light, in how important those groups are in the learning process,” she said. “Give the parents grace because at times it was hard for them to get their students on, it was hard for them to balance work, balance scheduling, balance three kids on laptops and one is breaking.”
The parents "that I serve put education at a very high priority,” she said. “When you ask parents about education and school, they do make it a priority because they know it’s not just about learning. It’s about a community being built.”
While she wears many hats as a principal, Casella believes in empowering her team to shine. She acknowledged she learned a lot from her teachers, especially about how to best support them and their methods of delivering instruction, becoming a student herself of their diverse pedagogy. Teaching gym and coaching basketball gives a different perspective of the students than when they learn phonics and math skills.
Casella began teaching physical education and health in 1993 in East Camden. She took a leadership course offered by the district and transitioned to the principal’s office, where she has overseen the North Camden school for six years.
“Becoming a leader, you definitely need to know all about that student to lead them and to help the teachers build those relationships as well,” Casella said. She mentioned that she heard teachers tried to interact with students outside of class during the pandemic, including delivering meals and continuing engagement - with social distancing.
In addition to worrying about teaching her students, Casella had to deal with the pandemic as a mother. She previously served on her local school board. When the students return to Cooper’s Poynt next week, Casella and her team will be ready to welcome them back with a shared purpose. The two-way stream of learning will continue, face to face.