MIDDLETOWN, NJ: Middletown residents and public school parents got a chance to learn about the school district’s strategic planning process at a series of meetings that took place in Middletown High School North on Oct. 17th, Bayshore Middle School on Oct. 18th, and Thorne Middle School on Oct 19th – as part of the process’s first phase. 

Strategic Planning is a process in which the Middletown Township Public School district sets a series of goals and aspirations on how they would like to improve the school district, as well as evaluate the long-term challenges the school district faces and areas in which the school district has the most room for improvement, every five years.   The current five-year strategic planning cycle started in 2015 and expires next year, whereas the upcoming strategic planning cycle will run from 2020 to 2025. 

Earlier this year, Middletown Township’s Board of Education, which runs the school district, chose Schoolhouse Strategies, a consulting firm run by partners David Hespe and Lynne Strickland, to help lead the rollout process for the upcoming strategic planning cycle. 

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Hespe was once the President of Burlington County College, and also served as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education from 1999 to 2001, and again more recently from 2014 to 2016; whereas Strickland was the Executive Director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools (an advocacy organization representing many public schools and school districts from throughout New Jersey) from 1992 to 2016. 

At the Thorne Middle School meeting, Hespe discussed how he and Schoolhouse Strategies in general plans to approach strategic planning for the Middletown Township Public School District.   Hespe said that Schoolhouse Strategies will be hosting three forums; with the first forum being an overview of the data on which the next strategic cycle might be based - and the second and third forums focusing more on what goals would the school district would be setting, as well how these goals would be accomplished and how success in achieving these goals would be measured. 

Hespe also said that the second and third forums will serve as opportunities for parents and other community members to put forth concrete suggestions on where they want the school district to be headed in the coming years. 

“We’re going to deep dive into those missions, visions, values, and goals in forum two,” he said. “More people show up for the first forum than the second and third forums, but that’s where the action is. We’ll (actually) put you to work a bit. I promise to keep it entertaining.”

Hespe said the first forum is designed more toward presenting data about the school district that might serve as the background and as a general frame or guide on how to build a strategic plan, but also emphasized that such data is not meant as the final word on how community members should feel about their district. 

“You don’t ignore the data, but it doesn’t in and of itself tell you what to do,” he said. “It informs the process, but it doesn’t dictate our response.”

Hespe said the strategic process in general is meant to gather as much community-based, grassroots input from the general public as much as possible, and use what is learned throughout the process to help sort out what matters most to the community in terms of how to improve the school district.

“It’s a process of discovery,” he said. “It helps us to prioritize and deploy resources into how we prioritize our goals. It helps us find out what you’re thinking.” 

Hespe then gave a power-point presentation sharing some data on Middletown’s school district, which revealed that the school district has had a decrease in enrollment over the past several years, that financial aid from the state will be decreasing over the next five years, and that the school district might have a shortfall of about $8 million a year by the 2024-2025  school year. 

The first person to speak was Heather Seffert, who heads Middletown Township Public School’s Friends of Diverse Learners organization, a special-education parent-led liaison team between special education parents and the school district that works to ensure the district provides special-education children with the services that they need.

Seffert said that Middletown’s special education programs have benefited the community’s children enormously, but also said she is worried that if the strategic plan involves changing how neighborhood children are assigned schools based on where they live, special education children’s ability to get the services they need might be adversely affected, since some of them might have to change schools, which might not offer the same services as their current schools.

“I’ve heard stories from parents who now say they regret (having their child’s school changed),” she said. “Re-districting should be avoided.”

There was also a comment from a mom of a child who attends Middletown High School North, who spoke about how there is sometimes an unhealthy rivalry between the parents of Middletown High School North students and the parents of Middletown High School South students, in that Middletown South parents often look down upon Middletown North parents. 

“People sometimes say it to my face (about how sorry they feel for Middletown North students),” the mom said. “It breaks my heart. They don’t even realize that my daughter attends Middletown High School North.”

Following this, Middletown High School North’s Principal, Patricia Vari-Cartier, mentioned how she’s proud of her high school, and that any negative comments about the high school are baseless.

“(Middletown High School) North is a great school,” she said. 

Thorne Middle School Principal Tom Olausen then said that a similar divide exists between parents of Thorne Middle School students and those from other middle schools – and that the next strategic planning cycle should have among its goals, efforts to bridge these divides. 

“How do we get rid of the stigma and rumors about some of these schools when there’s no evidence (for them),” he asked.