MIDDLETOWN, NJ: Township residents, especially those from its public school community, had one last chance to put their 2-cents for the first phase of the school district’s strategic planning process for the upcoming 2021-2025 planning cycle, during a Feb 12th meeting at Middletown High School South.
Strategic planning is, among other things, the process of coming up with a long-term visions and a set of priorities for the future direction of a school district over a five-year period; as well as planning on how to accomplish those things – and developing metrics to measure what was achieved over the strategic planning period.
For the Middletown Township Public Schools District, the firm leading the strategic planning process is Schoolhouse Strategies, a consulting organization led by former NJ State Education Commissioner David Hespe and Lynne Strickland, who worked for an advocacy group specializing in suburban school districts for more than 20 years before partnering with Hespe at Schoolhouse Strategies.
The district’s Board of Education chose Schoolhouse Strategies to lead the process in the Spring of last year. The strategic planning process has entailed a survey to which 2,700 Middletown community members responded and 10,000 written comments were submitted. The process has also entailed three public comment forums; the first of which involved multiple sessions (one at each of the district’s middle schools) held in October, the second being held in November at High School South, and the third being held over two sessions; the first of which took place at High School North in December, and the second of which being the one at High School South on Feb. 12th.
The Feb 12th meeting was the last such meeting/public comment forum scheduled for this strategic planning process.
That meeting opened with Hespe asking for a show of hands on who went to at least one strategic forum, with most hands being raised. Afterward, Lynne Strickland remarked how the turnout for these meanings here in Middletown reflected the community sprit of the town’s residents when it comes to education and the local public school system.
“It’s clear how much you care about your kids,” Strickland said. “I don’t think I’ve been to a meeting that hasn’t been quite crowded. I’ve been to other school meetings where you have 2 or 3 people. That speaks to Middletown’s involvement to its community, and most of all its children; so well done.”
Following this, Board of Education President Pamela Rogers remarked that she and other Board members have some of their children enrolled in the local public school system as well, meaning they also have a personal stake in the outcome. “This is as important to us as it is to you, we’re right there with you,” she said, adding that because of this, they made an effort to be as open about the process as possible. “None of this has happened behind your back.
Next came an informational presentation in which Hespe explained that the top issues and topics mentioned as concerns by survey participants and commenters were class sizes, re-districting/re-zoning, enrollment, bullying, social-emotional learning, technology, special education, inclusion, state aid, and funding/taxes.
Hespe also said that the survey participants said the school district’s top priorities to work on should be student success, equity & opportunity, personalized learning, and financial sustainability to make sure that the school district can afford to provide a quality education for all students.
Then came the public comment portion of the forum, in which numerous community members spoke about varying topics. Among those who spoke was a grandmother of four local elementary school children, who said she strongly opposed grade-banding (meaning basing high school placements on grade level rather than on geography) because it shortchanges the need for children to develop a sense of belonging to a specific school community and being known & appreciated as individuals in that school community. “They are not widgets on an assembly line to be moved every two years,” she said. “They are children whose social and emotional well-being are the most important thing.”
Laurie Sanzio, who has a daughter in elementary school, said she wants to preserve the neighborhood school feeling in Middletown, as well as ensure that class sizes don’t grow too large. “Class size to me is the biggest issue,” she said. “I know I’m not alone in saying that I’m very concerned (about that).”
Rachael Konopka, another Middletown resident, said that grade banding would create major traffic problems from having to transport lots of kids from one side of town to another, which could take up to 45 minutes each way, and sometimes maybe even more, during peak traffic times. “I think it’s critical that we look at the cumulative impact of that,” Konopka said.
Kim Higgs, mom of a high school student in the district, said that any performance gaps between the district’s various schools have to be closed in order to ensure a strong sense unity across the school district. “The third rail in Middletown is ‘am I selling a house that sends to South, or am I selling a house that send to North’”, Higgs said. “The equity needs to apply across the school district.”
Board of Education member Nicholas DiFranco said that the Board of Education is working hard to build trust with the community throughout the strategic planning process but understands why some people might be skeptical. “There’s an inherent mistrust, because I don’t know your kid specifically,” he said.
Lastly, District Superintendent William George said he was glad to see the process play out the way it has. “These people worked really, really hard to make sure that the info that’s out there is what you want to see and what you’ve been asking about,” he said, saying that the strategic planning process will help with one of the major challenges the district has. “Equity is a problem as it relates to special education and as it relates to student success. That is a fact.”