EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - The community participation event was fully-loaded and color-coded last night at Hammarskjold Junior High School as parents, teachers, and other stakeholders heeded Superintendent Victor Valeski's call for input into the direction of the East Brunswick Public Schools.
Participants identified themselves as staff members (yellow;) parents (teal;) students (blue;) or community members (red) when they received their post-it notes at the entrance to the school cafeteria. They were invited by the Board of Education and the Superintendent to write their suggestions on the notes and to place them on one of the six areas under discussion. Elements of the district's five-year strategic plan included Curriculum and Assessment, Facilities, School Logistics, Child Nutrition, Extra-curricular Activities, and Community Relations. Each element had a station flanked by large posterboards, and staffed by district administrators and school board members. Participants placed their suggestions on the appropriate boards and interacted with the committee that represented them.
East Brunswick Township Council President Mike Hughes was delighted by the "excellent showing" by members of the community. Hughes, who has formerly served as a member of the BOE, was there to observe "this chance for the community to participate in the development of the schools' strategic plan. There are so many talented people in East Brunswick, and it's a great idea to seek their input."
Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin liked the "open and transparent format of the event" and praised Dr. Valeski for opening ip the relationship between the community as a whole and the schools. Councilman Mike Spadafino said, "I wish they had something like this when I was in school," referring to the chance stakeholders had to share their thoughts in an organized way. Similarly, Dr. Dana Zimbicki, President of the East Brunswick Education Association, was happy about "the great turnout" for the event.
Dr. Valeski was "pleased with the ideas that had been generated as they reflect the values of the community." Said Valeski," These ideas will provide the catalyst for change for the next five years. We are looking for themes that develop from the information we receive here tonight. We hope to repeat and refine this event and to continue the process."
The atmosphere in the room was highly energized and purposeful. Some parents commented on school start and end times, citing schedules that do no provide enough time for students to eat breakfast, eat lunch at a reasonable time, or get enough sleep. They were concerned with students missing meals and an insufficiency of hot food. The fifth graders, one parent pointed out, often miss out on hot food because they are the last to be served in the Pre-K - 5 buildings. Parents were concerned that students spent more than half of their brief lunch periods waiting on line, leading to rushed eating and wasted food.
Several parents were requesting that school athletes who are often at the buildings long after school be excused from gym classes so that they could study. Some parents had ideas about the improvement of the after-school programs, noting that many kids do not go outside all day. "We need to let them get some sunshine," said one mom.
Karen Marmion, an EB parent who is also a teacher in Edison, was concerned about the lack of higher-level thinking skills that are required by the Core Standards. "There is not enough here in East Brunswick," she said. She attached her comments to the Curriuclum and Assessment board, hoping that elementary students will be more challenged in the future.
Emma, a student at Frost School, wrote out her blue card requesting a later start time and more recess. Her mom was interested in block scheduling, a structure that would provide more time for teaching and learning and less make-up homework. Some parents and students interviewed were also concerned about the "controlled environment" in Hammarskjold and Churchill schools in which students are detached from the weather and the time of day.
As might have been expected, many parents were concerned about the PARCC assessments and the in-class time spent on preparing for standardized tests. Referring to her two children in the system, one mom said, "PARCC has stressed them out beyond belief." She continued, "I, for one, would like to see less technology and more people talking to each other, like at an event like this. It was great. I hope our input is heard. It was a nice set-up. I like the openness. Parents don't have time to attend a whole board meeting. This event was convenient."