SUMMIT, NJ – Members of Speak Up Summit met Saturday morning to hear Superintendent Dr. Nathan Parker and Assistant Superintendent Julie Glazer discuss the changes and improvements to the district’s programs and curriculum.

“We we have continued to increase academics with zero increase in budget and no elimination of programs, through strategic planning and increased efficiencies,” Glazer said. “The areas where we’ve seen that the most in the time that Dr. Parker and I have been here are the creation of new curriculum, advancement in the current curriculum, and an increase in the scope of studies.”

One of the newer parts of the curriculum in Summit schools is problem-based learning, which Glazer said has contributed to much of the success the district is seeing.

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“It comes with a pressure and support model,” she explained. “There is administrative pressure to implementing this kind of change. There are clear expectations of staff, and we support it with new instructional facilitators who provide strategies, planning and co-teaching.”

Glazer also said there is a real focus on the new common core standards that support what Summit schools are trying to do. Subjects such as math and social studies are now done through a lens of literacy.

“To make that happen we do a tremendous amount of curriculum writing and revisions,” she said.

Parker said the district is moving toward more personalized instruction.

“When we have a student with special needs or advanced interests, we can meet those needs,” Parker said.

Under the current curriculum in the lower levels, teachers who share the same students can talk with each other in team meetings about students who may have specific needs and figure out how to best address them. Parker said the district will be experimenting more with that at the high school as well.

Parker said open lines of communication are one of the keys to a successful school district, and that if a parent has a concern about their child’s teacher and are not comfortable going to the principal, they can contact him directly.

“For the most part, we get lots of compliments about our staff,” Parker explained. “But we have ways of intervening to help people improve their performance.” He added that concerned parents can also go directly to the teacher for a quicker response.

Parker also discussed the diversity that has come to the district’s faculty in the past three years.

“Summit has a diverse student body and is a diverse community,” he said. “And yet our faculty was not reflective of that, so for the last two years we’ve held diversity job fairs. We’ve been able to hire 15 people through those.” Parker said by keeping a focus on diversity, it helps increase the size of the pool of competent candidates to choose from.

Parker also pointed out that the board of education recently passed the most comprehensive nepotism policy in the state.

“It signals to everybody that there’s a fair merit process for getting hired here,” he explained. “For the most part, if you’re related to someone on staff, you can’t get hired by Summit schools.” That also has increased the number of candidates who apply for jobs with the district.

Glazer also talked about professional development for teachers. At one time, professional development was sitting teachers down in a room and telling them what they needed to do. Now, the process involves “professional learning communities,” which actively engage teachers in what’s being discussed, and getting their input.

“With the old way, we didn’t get many results and it didn’t have the effects we wanted on student learning,” she said. “Teachers who have the opportunity to reflect and perfect their practice, to talk to their colleagues in a collaborative, inquiry-based way are going to get better results.”

Beyond collaboration, Glazer said, there are other benefits to teachers being engaged in professional development, including an increased commitment to the district’s mission and vision, a thorough assessment of the curriculum, and culturally responsive teaching.

“It’s a powerful model that’s been embraced by the staff,” she said. “With everybody involved, I am more than confident we will continue our upward trajectory.”

Another important part of teacher development, Glazer said, is for new teachers to become a part of the culture of Summit. For four days during the summer, all new staff spends time learning about Summit and the district, and that continues throughout the year with mentors for all new teachers.

Parker said he has heard some concern about single-session days, but he said that time is important when it comes to keeping the staff up-to-date.

“The task of teaching school is very complicated and if we are keeping our staff up to date, we need that time,” he said, adding that private schools generally have 165-day school years, and Summit schools have 180 days.

Parker also talked about the district’s special education program, which he said is one of the more cost effective in the state.

“I’m most proud that we’ve created three new classes in the last couple of years, which means we’ve brought students back from out-of-district placement,” he said. “We’re hopeful that in the next few years, we will have a class at middle school that focuses on autism.”

In a discussion about the budget, Parker said last year the district had a zero percent budget-to-budget increase. The district is sensitive to fiscal concerns, specifically how to maintain the quality of the schools programs and stay fiscally responsible. He added that the district is proposing another zero percent increase this year, and the new budget will include no increase in school taxes and no reduction in programs.

Parker also said the $23 million worth on construction, all infrastructure, that’s been done in the district is a great investment.

“It was done at a time when construction costs are at their lowest in 20 years,” he said. “And we got 40 cents back on the dollar from the state. We talk about a loss of state aid, but you get a lot of state aid back through projects like this.”

Improvements include HVAC, windows, roofs and sidewalks, as well as upgrades to the stage in the high school auditorium that Parker said were needed for student safety.

The installation of more efficient boilers has brought the district’s fuel costs down about 50 percent.

“To pay for instruction and maintain program you have to be frugal,” Parker said. Another cost savings has been in the area of food service, where three years ago there was a deficit of $80,000 and now there’s a surplus of that amount. Not only that, but the satisfaction level is high – even staff eats cafeteria food.

Parker said that through partnerships with parents and various organizations including Speak Up Summit, PTOs, and the Summit Education Foundation, the district receives almost $800,000 a year.

Among other areas Parker and Glazer touched on during the meeting:

  • Parker said district officials are creating a committee to see if there’s a cost-effective way to add full-day kindergarten.
  • He also said there have been some questions about how well the school district works with the Common Council. The first joint meeting ever between the Board of Education and the Common Council has been set for Feb. 21, and Parker said he is looking forward to the partnership. “We’ve had a great relationship with the council, and I have no reason to believe that would change at all.”
  • Parker said he personally opposes charter schools.
  • The school board’s policy committee is currently considering school uniforms, and there will be further discussion by the board at a later date.
  • Focus areas for the next three years include communication, fiscal responsibility, raising academic achievement, and responding to the social and emotional needs of the students.
  • Parker said the next mediation session for teacher contract negotiations is Feb. 29, and he is hopefully the matter will be resolved at that point.

Speak Up Summit meets about once a month. For more information, visit www.speakupsummit.org.