EWING, NJ – The Somerville school district is one of nine school districts and two charter schools statewide that have earned the designation of Lighthouse District awarded annually by the NJ Department of Education for substantial improvement in academic achievement.

The 11 Lighthouse award winners were announced Wednesday at the NJDOE’s statewide “Equity for All” conference at The College of New Jersey.

“Lighthouse Districts can serve as beacons of success for public education in New Jersey,” said Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet. “We recognize Lighthouse Districts for tremendous academic gains, for demonstrating that all schools can excel and all students can achieve.”

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Dr. Timothy Teehan, Somerville superintendent of schools, accepted the award, surrounded by teaches, administrators and members of the Board of Education.

Several initiatives and programs implemented by the Somerville school district were singled out for praise by the state BOE:

"Dr. Tim Teehan and the Board of Education in Somerville collaborated with the staff, students and community to set Vision 2020, which focuses on three strategic themes: building cultural competence; preparing for college and career; and growing professional development opportunities. Because each is important to student success, school climate and culture are critical areas the district leverages to meet its longterm vision for improved student outcomes.

"Every year, each school building in the district conducts a school climate and culture survey. They use the information to gauge where they are finding success and which areas they need to improve. Somerville’s social media hashtag is #Allin4theVille. “Allin4theVille” means that everyone is all in for the students in every way, every day. The district accomplishes this through the purposeful empowerment of its staff and working as a team to achieve desired goals.

"Somerville’s tag is #Allin4theVille.  This means that everyone is all in for our students in every way, every day.  The district accomplishes this through the purposeful empowerment of its staff and working as a team to achieve desired goals.  One way Somerville staff are empowered is by being part of the personnel committee, which bears the responsibility to review, interview, and advance candidates through the hiring process for open positions.  These participating individuals are selecting their future colleagues who will share the same beliefs of being #Allin4theVille.  Additionally, Somerville staff are empowered to write curriculum, create Teacher Leader passion projects, join various committees, grow professionally by sharing with colleagues their expertise, and openly and honestly discuss ways to improve the district and offerings for students."

A total of 2,357 students are enrolled in the district at three schools: Somerville High School, grades 9-12; Somerville Middle School, grades 6-8 and Van Derveer Elementary School, Grades K-5.

The NJDOE launched the Lighthouse District initiative two years ago as a result of conversations with educators, families and students throughout the state, who felt there should be a greater focus on growth rather than proficiency alone.

"The Department of Education is always listening and watching what different districts are doing and monitoring students' progress," Teehan said.

"We're always getting visitors from other districts and the state to see what we are doing and how we're doing it," he added. "We popped up on their radar because they've been hearing about the stuff we're doing."

A  flurry of phone calls from the DOE near the end of the school year in May and June, a few more visits, and then a conference call during which Teehan was told Somerville had been selected as a Lighthouse District.

He was sworn to secrecy - until yesterday when he was able to share the good news with the staff who attended the "Equty for All" conference.

“The aim of the Lighthouse initiative is not to identify the districts with the highest test scores, but rather districts that have shown the greatest improvement,” said Kathy Goldenberg, president of the State Board of Education. “By doing so, we give these local educators a platform in which they can share their initiatives, programs and successes with school leaders in other communities.”

Somerville and the other 10 Lighthouse award winners demonstrated measurable progress across diverse groups of learners and used multiple measures to provide individualized support to students and school communities. The NJDOE evaluated four years of district and school-level data to identify districts with the greatest academic improvement. Lighthouse districts are representative of New Jersey’s diverse student body, including size of the district and region of the state.

During the award term from July 2019 to July 2021, officials from Lighthouse Districts will have the opportunity to participate in professional learning and networking opportunities between Lighthouse districts and other districts, take part in diversity and inclusion training, and provide insight to the NJDOE through policy discussions.

Other programs and policies that contributed to Somerville's recognition as a Lighthouse District:

- Somerville staff have many in-district professional development opportunities. Educators can be involved with the hiring process for open positions; write curriculum; create teacher leader passion projects; join various committees; grow professionally by sharing their expertise with colleagues; and openly and honestly discuss ways to improve the district and offerings for students. Everyone’s input is valued to help the district meet their collective vision.

- College and career readiness is a priority throughout the district. In both the elementary and middle school, students participate in small groups to improve self-esteem, positive peer interactions and other skills that are deemed important by the teachers. Somerville High School has a guidance counselor dedicated to college and career. The College and Career counselor and the guidance counseling team arrange on-site college visits, provide scholarship information and support, share resources about the various branches of the military, arrange apprenticeships and internships, identify volunteer opportunities and disseminate part-time job openings. The district also uses personalized learning plans to better understand students’ current paths and future goals. 

- Somerville also promotes inclusivity. Special education students are encouraged to interact with peers outside of their classroom and this has helped them to feel more connected to the school as a whole. A highlight is the district-created, unified bowling team that has a mix of special education and non-special education students.

- Seven years ago, the district created its first Digital Data Wall. The shared data provides a longitudinal view of each student, which makes it easy to identify progress and areas of need. The data serves as a compass to student learning and student needs in an effort to help every student achieve success. This summer they will begin to analyze data to create a plan to help frame goals for the next five years.

- Somerville focuses on students being provided the best instructional practices by ensuring teachers are tailoring lessons to the individualized needs of every student.  This is first accomplished by including teaching staff members in the development of the written curriculum.  By having teachers write the curriculum, they understand better the standards and the related expectations and gain an improved grasp of how to modify lessons so they meet all student needs while remaining focused on the lesson’s objective.  The curriculum is considered a working document with it being added to daily and updated annually based on the teacher experiences, performance data, and any new resources identified by administrators or staff.  Next, student data is continually collected, analyzed, and used to drive instructional practices on the whole class, small group, and individual student level.

- One of the strongest instructional practices are the K-5 teachers’ ability to differentiate in small groups. The teachers are so well structured that at any given time they can pull small targeted groups based on mastery of standards in a unit of study. Data is collected and progress is monitored and tracked. 

-  In order for teachers to best understand their students’ academic needs, they focus on building relationships with their students through personal connections.  These relationships serve as the conduit to deeply understand each student as an individual and then provide each what is needed so the students experience personal academic, social, emotional, and behavioral growth.  The administration and staff believe that academic growth can best be experienced only if the social, emotional, and behavioral needs are met, as well.  Part of the relationship building is to also teach students how to effectively interact with their peers and provide them authentic experiences where they can practice what they have learned.  The Elementary School subscribes to the philosophy put forth by The 7 Habits of Happy Kids – Leader In Me.  The Habits are infused in everyday practices, and have resulted in experiencing improved interpersonal student relationships along with students being better able to self-monitor.  At the middle and high school levels, peer mediation is being implemented as a means to empower students and expand their perspective beyond themselves.

- In grades 6 – 10, students read every day for 10 -20 minutes to create a culture of reading and to build reading stamina students. The teachers model this love of literature by also engaging in independent reading. The teachers have conferences with students about their reading and students are encouraged to share highlights of literature they enjoy.

- Somerville has been part of the NJ Teacher Leader Network and has had groups of teacher leaders create Teacher Leader Passion Projects this past school year, which are focused on helping faculty and/or students and include new staff mentoring, student mentoring, pioneering purposeful peer partnerships, and block scheduling (link to project pitches:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcmMi81vp34&feature=youtu.be).

- Somerville provides a multitude of professional development including professional development days with sessions developed by teachers and for teachers where staff have choice in what they attend based on their individually identified needs, ability to register for out-of-district professional learning experiences and visits to other schools across the state, and after school and summer professional development opportunities through teacher developed learning experiences (Teachers Teaching Teachers formally CPLA).  Teachers Teaching Teachers (T3) offerings align to the Teacher Leader Standards and are held over a period of time so teachers can practice what they learn and reflect on the learning.

- Furthermore, Somerville developed 3DPD, which is a 24/7 accessible video archive of best practices, which are video snippets produced from everyday classroom learning experiences that serve as models for others to emulate.  

- Somerville embraces the opportunities to learn from other districts who are experiencing success.  Somerville administration has visited a high achieving district in Massachusetts with similar demographics to Somerville.  The visit exposed the Somerville team to successful practices that could be modified to meet Somerville’s needs while also allowing the district to share with the sister district best practices occurring in Somerville’s schools. 

- For professional development to be most effective, it needs to be embedded, linked to student learning, and sustained.  In K-5, we followed this model with the implementation of our new writing program. The teachers were trained, given the materials, and then were coached and modeled lessons throughout the year.  This model was also followed with increasing Math and Science instruction in our Preschool and with Math coaching in the Middle School.  The professional development happened in real time in the classroom.

- Somerville’s administrative team, teaching staff, and students conduct community outreach through various means.  Students engage in Multicultural Day, community service, participation in the Bake for Good program sponsored by King Arthur Flour Company, a variety of fundraisers, service learning projects, adoption of partner schools, singing in the community, and so much more.  Our administrators and teachers engage the community through the Superintendent’s Brown Bag Lunch, Principal’s Coffee and Conversation, mentoring through the Mosaic Project, fundraisers Mystery Readers, a variety of festivals, providing parent workshops on a multitude of topics to name a few.  Together, these efforts inform and support the community while forming a partnership between the school and community, which ultimately enhances the student learning experiences.

- Somerville’s population is truly diverse racially and socio-economically.  As a result, the district strives to include the community in all that it does.  When providing parent workshops, the district uses a translator and headphones for non-English speaking participants.  Furthermore, all communications from the district to families are provided in English and Spanish.  The district understands that a number of our students come from either single-parent families or homes where both parents are working multiple jobs.  In an effort to be as inclusive as possible, the district often offers community meetings or workshops both during the day and evening hours and video records and posts meetings in an effort to include parents that are unable to attend despite the day/evening offerings.

- Somerville serves as the county seat, with access to a great deal of businesses and organizations.  To tap into that potential, a survey was sent out to parents asking if they were able to volunteer, host a site visit, or provide speakers.  The district is in the process of compiling those answers into a guide which teachers can use to enhance curricular connections to the world of work.  This connection is also seen in the schools' academies.

- Somerville SCEA partnered with the NJEA and Somerville High School Administration to provide a Spanish Heritage day.  The day included small parent sessions led by both English and Spanish speakers and culminated with dancing and a celebration of different cuisines.

- Somerville has demonstrated the promotion of individual excellence for all students by having strategically planned to provide unique learning opportunities through the creation of its MAPS non-traditional high school and various academies: Somerville Academy of Liberal Arts (SALA), Somerville Medical Sciences Academy (SMSA), LaRue PR, and the STEM Academy. 

Each year to two years, the district creates these specialized learning academy opportunities after surveying students, connecting with industry partners, and developing a fiscally responsible opportunity that meets identified areas of interest.  The MAPS non-traditional high school was created to engage disenfranchised high school students that did not feel connected to nor fit in with the traditional structure and offerings provided by the high school.

As a result, students that had absentee rates have experienced 95%+ attendance rates.  Additionally, many of these students are graduating on-time despite having been originally behind in credits

The students in the program will speak about the program participants as being a family where they disagree, but each supports the others so they are all successful.  The SALA academy was the first academy Somerville created in partnership with Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC).  Participating students graduate with a Liberal Arts Associate’s degree in May before they receive their high school diploma in June.

The SMSA academy was created in partnership with Robert Wood Johnson – Barnabas Health– Somerset for students who had an interest in medical sciences.  The academy permits students to gain college credits through participating in high school AP courses while gaining real-life experience through shadowing opportunities within the hospital setting.

LaRue PR academy was created in partnership with LaRue PR, a Somerville public relations firm specializing in the fashion industry.  Participating students participate in an internship after school and get to be part of developing public relations campaigns for Fashion Week in NYC.

The most recent academy created is the STEM Academy and is in partnership with RVCC.  Participating students gain college credits and an industry computer networking certification.  Additionally, students gain real-world experiences by participating in an internship offered in the district’s Chrome Zone and newly formed Chrome Zone Jr.  STEM Academy students will have the option of entering the workforce upon high school graduation or continuing their education at the college level to gain a deeper understanding and additional certifications within their selected area of study,

Teehan listed other programs that have proven successful:

- Somerville has a long history of providing non-academic supports in the area of social-emotional learning as evidenced by the placement of non-Child Study Team School Psychologists in each building and a districtwide Behavioral specialist available for classified and non-classified students.  Five years ago, the district started to focus on being trauma informed, which expanded to include cultural competence, implicit bias, and is currently moving towards implementing a districtwide approach to restorative justice.  By providing non-academic supports, students are better equipped to handle the academic rigors that they encounter on a daily basis.

In Somerville High School, there is one guidance counselor dedicated to College and Career.  The College and Career counselor in conjunction with the guidance counseling team arrange college visits on site, provide scholarship information and support, share resources and information about options with the various branches of the military, arrange apprenticeships and internships, identify volunteer opportunities, and assist in connecting students to part-time job openings.

- In both the elementary and middle school, students participate in small groups to improve self-esteem, positive peer interactions, successful conflict de-escalation strategies, and other skills as deemed appropriate through consultation with the team of teachers.  To reinforce this work after school hours in the Middle School, therer is an impact club where students see needs in and outside of the school community and develop plans to address them.  The students have decorated bathroom stalls with positive messages, created a comfort closet for students to get supplies they may need at home, and put on a talent show to benefit a local charity.

- The district created a Digital Data Wall seven years ago.  The data provides the staff a longitudinal view of each student, which makes identifying progress, as well as, areas of need easier.  Student data is continually updated, analyzed, and progress is monitored.  The data serves as a compass to student learning and student needs in an effort that every student achieves success.  The data sets collected vary based on grade level. The data sets include, but are not limited to, reading levels, benchmark assessments, writing portfolios, fundamental skills within literacy, foundational mathematics skills, AP scores, SAT/ACT scores, credit attainment, absenteeism, behavioral, and supports provided.   

·         I&RS is a data-driven endeavor where identified students are provided interventions based on areas of desired growth.  Student progress is tracked and recorded.  Implemented interventions are evaluated for desired effectiveness and modified or replaced based on the outcome of the analysis.  

·         The elementary school moved away from a traditional report card to a Standards-Based Report Card in an effort to report to parents how students were performing based on the standards being taught.  As a district, our assessments are based on the standards taught and delineated within the lesson plans.  Therefore, our report cards should be reflective of that, as well.

·         We are in the process of moving shared assessments into a data platform called Edulastic. With Edulastic, we tie each assessment questions to the standards, which provides evidence of students’ progress on the standards.  The information allows us to provide targeted instruction in small groups.  In the Middle School, we are adopting i-Ready.  With the data from i-Ready, we are going to create small targeted math skill groups to enhance our students’ mastery of middle school math standards.

   Somerville uses a tiered system of support.  The focus had been supports provided outside of the student’s classroom, but in recent years have placed an emphasis on the supports provided in the classroom.  This area of weakness of not focusing on classroom supports was identified and now every identified student is receiving supports tailored to their specific needs.  As part of the developed curriculum maps, intervention supports, including those from Jennifer Seravallo, are included as resources for teachers within the curriculum maps so individualized supports can be provided. 

- For the gifted student, Somerville has offered a before-school G&T program and for the 2019-2020 school year are transitioning the elementary G&T program to occur during the school day.   At the middle school level, students are offered more challenging courses within mathematics and are offering electives within areas of high interest to students for the 2019-2020 school year.  At the high school level, students have opportunities to take remedial, college preparation, honors, and AP courses in all subject areas. 

- For struggling elementary and middle school readers and mathematicians, Somerville has created Title I reading and math before and after school programs. 

- In order to best reach the ESL learners, Somerville has partnered with Fairleigh Dickinson University to create an ESL/ESL Bilingual cohort so participating staff members will earn their ESL/ESL Bilingual certification and be better equipped to support the district’s ESL learners.  Furthermore, Somerville has provided Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) training to 40+ staff members.  By giving teachers the knowledge and skills to effectively reach ESL students, all ESL students are able to be individualized appropriate supports within their classes.