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By Wilson Conde

Middletown residents watched several presentations by the Board of Education about topics like anti-bullying efforts, support services & programs for struggling and/or troubled students, and standardized test performance; during its Sept. 25th meeting, which also featured a discussion of school placement for future residents of the upcoming “Taylor Lane” development.

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Before the main presentations began, Assistant Superintendent Kim Pickus, along with John Kerrigan, the district’s math curriculum director – announced that middle school and high school teachers are now moving toward a standardized grading system, in which they still have some discretion on how they assign student grades, but also adopt common practices across the board.   The goal behind this, according to Kerrigan, is to ensure a level playing field for student grades, so that those grades are less dependent on who a student’s teacher happens to be. 

After this, Marjorie Caruso, the district’s curriculum and instruction director presented the district’s standardized test performance report from New Jersey’s Department of Education along Kim Pickus.   The presentation opened with Caruso mentioning that New Jersey students no longer have to take the PARCC exam that was given for the past several years, and instead take the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA) test. Caruso also said that 11thgraders are no longer required to take standardized tests, although she also said standardized testing for 11thgraders will resume in a few years. 

After the presentation on the standardized testing results report, Caruso invited Board members and community members to participate in a data carousel, in which data is presented in visually appealing ways for participants to be able to draw inferences and devise questions about it.

The data from the presentation revealed that Middletown students performed better than the state average in terms of either fully meeting or exceeded grade-level expectations by several percentage points for both the Math and English/language arts (ELA) sections of the NJSLA; and that this trend held across most grade-levels.  

The presentation also mentioned that SAT scores for the district declined by a few points, but Caruso said that this was most likely because of a higher participation rate, in which more students who otherwise might not have taken the SAT are now taking it for the first time for various reasons, including using it as an alternative graduation path. 

Kim Pickus then said that New Jersey was rated as the nation’s highest-ranking state in educational quality by the Education Week magazine, and that this is because New Jersey has one of the most rigorous academic curriculums in the country. 

“Students rise to them (those expectations),” Pickus said. 

Next came a presentation on the Middletown Township Public Schools’ HIB (Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying) incident report.  The presentation revealed that the incidents of HIB have decreased from last year to this year, and the same goes for violence, vandalism, substance abuse, and weapons – as well as other disciplinary incidents.  The presentation also revealed that Middletown Schools performed very well in terms of efforts to fight bullying.

Mary Ellen Walker, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Student Activities and Services, gave a presentation on the services and programs students and parents can access for those struggling with substance abuse, behavioral problems, and other related issues. 

She also said that the district is now implementing disciplinary programs that provide alternative pathways to suspension, especially for first-time offenders; as well as adding new counselors, school psychologists, and mentorship programs in partnership with CPC behavioral health center, the YMCA, and other entities.

“Punishment is more of a last resort, but it is one of the tools that we have,” Walker said.

After these presentations, Board member John Little mentioned how as a result of state aid being reduced over the next five years, the district is projected to have a shortfall of roughly about $9.4 million in that timeframe; while Board member Nicholas DiFranco said that the Board, when it comes to making large-scale financial decisions, takes this into account by figuring out how such decisions might reduce or increase this shortfall. 

“We’re always keeping this in the back of our minds,” DiFranco said. 

Following this, the Board then talked about how where to place future K-12 students who may potentially in later years live in the upcoming but yet to be built residential development on Taylor Lane. Board member Leonora Caminiti filed a motion to zone the area for Harmony and Thorne Middle Schools for the time being until more data becomes available on how many children are expected to move into the area, but later withdrew the motion after other Board members, as well as some Middletown residents themselves, expressed concerns about such a decision being immature.

“Why rush it,” one such resident said. “One (more) month (for the Board to gather more information and for local residents to think it over) is not going to kill us.”

The board discussed in some of their previous meetings whether to send these potential future students to Harmony and Thorne, Village and Thorne, or Village and Thompson for elementary and middle school, but did reach a consensus at the time – and is expected to revisit and potentially hold a final vote on the issue during their Oct. 28thmeeting.