CAMDEN, NJ — On the gymnasium wall of Thomas H. Dudley Family School, banners hang that read “Change the Narrative“ and “Shift the Culture."

City school officials are embracing these themes for the 2019-20 academic year. The campaign to reach more positive outcomes came to the forefront when administrators took part in professional development programs last week.

The strategy sessions, workshops, and lessons centered on making the extra effort as an educator to ensure student success across the district, in the face of stigma and financial challenges that have been linked to city education.

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The week of August 19 began with reflections from the ISTE Conference, a global tech-in-education expo, and implementing Google Classroom as the use of technology in schools becomes increasingly important. Education leaders reviewed instructional programs and assessments that will help achieve student goals, while one day was devoted to updates on district policies set forth by the central office.

On another day, the student support team ran the show from Dudley School, organizing seminars on how understanding each child's background can allow teachers to learn the best ways in which to teach them.

The district reserved the final day of the program to reflect on and implement the information gathered, in preparation for the start of school on Thursday, Sept. 5.

An overall component of the in-service days was viewing results from last year and setting goals for the upcoming year with the focus on improving services provided to students, district personnel said. This included studying social and emotional learning, attendance, and supports in the schools.

"It's not just about looking at attendance and the number of students that are truant,  but why it's happening and what we can do to support them," said Lauren Gallagher, a mental health practitioner for school-based youth services, during one of the work sessions. "Because it's not just about being in school and saying, 'OK, bye, we'll see you tomorrow.' We're figuring out how well rounded we can support the whole family of the student."

The district leaders heard a story of how going to great lengths can pay off from Akbar Cook, the well-known, well-quoted principal of Newark's West Side High School, who was a guest speaker during the middle day of the development week.

Cook noticed that students weren't showing up to school. Often, it was to avoid the embarrassment and bullying that resulted from having only dirty clothes to wear. So, he eliminated the problem. The school now has a room of washing machines and dryers that students can use.

And he didn't stop there. Cook started a "Lights On" program at the school, keeping the building open on Friday nights and evenings during the summer for those who need a place to go.

His initiative landed him an appearance on the Ellen Show about a year ago.

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