New Jersey Department of Education

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Episode 6: Relationships that Last — Student and University Collaboration

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


[upbeat background music]

Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.

I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.

Ken: Hello, and welcome to the DOE Digest. I'm your host, Ken Bond. Thank you to all who came to the New Jersey Department of Education's "Equity for All" conference. We were so excited for the day and we had an amazing time with the many different sessions and speakers who were there. I can confidently say this was a time where teachers and administrators got to engage and think about how to build better structures for the students of New Jersey so that regardless of their background, they are able to be educated in ways that will lead to a bright future.

In this episode, we're going to be focusing on university and district partnerships. This was something that we were excited, as a state, to be able to foster in the conference. And we had folks who spoke on this and we also had new partnerships form.

Tonya Breland is my counterpart in the Office of Professional Learning, where she's a director. She was the visionary behind this conference and she is a voice for the State on issues around equity. Here are some of her insights as she reflects on her time during the Equity Conference.

State Equity Conference

Tonya: So when the Commissioner came to me, he actually did not give me a focus area. That was something that I chose to do with the help of the Milken Educator.

Milken Educators are honored educators who have been, um, recognized by the, um, Milken Family Foundation. They recognize educators every year for excellent work in classrooms and in schools.

So, we first started by looking at data, and, 'cause the data doesn't lie. And with that data we started looking -- we started off with a question, "what is one of the biggest challenges, or concerns, that we see in education in New Jersey?"

And as we were looking at data and talking through, we landed on equity. So I might have influenced it a little bit, but primarily--once we started talking about the challenges in education, they really, basically all agreed, "Yeah, that's a big challenge that we have."

Because we do have a lot of data that suggests that not all students are getting what they need. And I had been passionate about that in one way or another for most of my career. And I just felt this is an area that we need to address as a State Department. We can't just talk about it or have it in writing, it needs to be something that we are saying, "hey, we're putting a stake in the ground and we are actually going to put our money where our mouth is."

Ken: Congratulations. The conference was absolutely incredible. What are -- what are some things that you think educators will take away from the conference? And how do you think it'll--it'll shift conversations in the state?

Tonya: I think that--first of all, I agree with you; the conference was amazing. I think that educators are gonna walk away inspired to...continue the conversation about what equity means in their school buildings and in their classrooms.

So I'm hoping that they don't stop at yesterday, but that, you know, all the educators continue moving forward with what they believe will really help students be successful, not only in school, but beyond school.

Ken: Just tell me about all the--all the different things that happened yesterday and then I wanna talk about one specific piece of that.

Tonya: Sure. We had up to fifty workshops that were taking place, ranging in topics from "Working with ELL Students" or "Working with Boys," or "Having Courageous Conversations about Race," or "Working with LGBTQ Students" and/or "Creating Safe Spaces for Students."

I mean it was a very wide, wide range of conversations that took place. But in addition to that, we honored school districts who had shown signs of improvement in ELA and Math--recognized them as Lighthouse Districts. We had a panel discussion about that. We had a panel discussion about the Connect Action Roadmap, also known as CAR. We had mastermind sessions. We had EdCamp sessions led by our honored educators. Um, we also had TED Equity Talks, um, for individuals who had gone through the TED Master Class. And we launched our equity-based PLCs in partnership with three universities. And that -- those PLCs will continue to do the work throughout the year using action research to study some of the challenges around equity in the regions where they're located.

Ken: Why do you think it's important to partner with universities in these PLCs? How will that push the conversation about equity forward?

Tonya: So when we think about that partnership with the universities, I think that we can leverage the expertise that universities bring to the table. Universities have spent a lot of time researching some of these critical topics and critical pieces that we're working on at the K12 level. And I just think that they bring something to the table that really enhances the work that we're doing.

Ken: Before we move to highlight two of the universities that were in the equity-based PLCs, we're going to hear from two high school students about a university partnership in their district.

[end of section]

University Partnerships

Student Perspective
Anthony Fosu and Yasmeen Abdelaziz: Matawan Regional High School

Anthony: Hi, I’m Anthony Fosu. I'm from Matawan Regional High School and I'm going into my senior year.

Yasmeen: Hi, I’m Yasmeen Abdelaziz. I'm 17 years old and I am going to be a senior at Matawan Regional High School.

Ken: Yasmeen and Anthony were presenters at the "Equity for All" conference. They were excited to be able to share the equity work and student voice work that was going on in their district with educators and other attendees. And were able to take firm hold of this work in their local context.

Anthony: Through our school's professional development and collaboration with NYU Steinhardt, we, as student equity leaders, have the chance and opportunity now to empower other students and to advocate for them and advocate on their behalf. And get them to start advocating for other people and be part of the conversation. Because so many policy decisions -- so many decisions are made at the district, at the board level, uh, concerning students. So many decisions are made with the principals and the parents and the community members, but students are so often left out of that conversation. And I was so grateful that our district gave us opportunity to be part of this initiative.

As my student council, I've had the opportunity to start creating surveys, to start surveying students to find out where --- what-- what needs the student body has and where we need to start focusing on. And in addition to that, we are -- have created a student advocacy group in our district that allows us to break down the barriers of power between, like, the superintendent, the principal, the staff and faculty, and allows us all to have a conversation and communicate issues that are concerning students so that students are also part of that decision-making process.

Yasmeen: So I was invited to be part of my school equity district team and we've been working on putting together a framework for some equity presentations and how to promote equity in our schools. We've come a long way just putting all this work together and we've been very successful within that and doing plenty of workshops.

We’ve worked on looking at data from, um, our school's academies and showing the, um, race data within those academies. So, um, we did a workshop with our faculty in our school and we presented the work that we did. Some of the teachers were on the edge about some of the work we presented because you're gonna feel discomfort when you talk about equity and race and gender. So it's gonna be a bit of a hard process to kind of introduce what we're doing, uh, to the faculty in our school.

From the data that we collected I found out that we have a lot of white students who are in more of the AP classes and the Honors classes. And most of the black and/or, um, Hispanic students are just in regular classes. And something that I took from that was when you plan for like our scheduling for classes, I kind of want our faculty to start asking the students what they think they should be going in to instead of, kind of, just assuming what gender or race of that student should be taking that specific class.

[end of student section]
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Ken: Equity work can be a powerful thing. It’s so important to think about how building relationships and partnerships can advance equity because we can't do this work alone.

The New Jersey Department of Education purposely built three regional partnerships between educators, universities, and the State. The Equity for All Conference was where we kicked off this project so that we can advance equity together and collaboratively in schools. While those partnerships are just starting, we're going to highlight two already-established endeavors from Rowan University and Kean University, who are both partners in our equity-based PLCs.

Administrator Perspective: Part 1
Dr. Melissa Williams, Assistant Superintendent, Delsea Regional School District

Melissa: Hi. I'm Dr. Melissa Williams, the Assistant Superintendent for the Delsea Regional and Elk Township School Districts.

We have some student voice groups in both the middle school and the high school that have been fantastic--that have directly come out of our partnership with Rowan and CASE and Dr. Zion. And she has graduate students who actually have a protocol that really makes the student voice work very systematized. And students are able to stay focused and they're able to come up with real--real questions and problems that we've been able to come up with solutions. Or change our practices.

Ken: What are some non-negotiables that you think about when you're evaluating which partnerships you enter?

Melissa: So let's start with the obvious one that tends to become the elephant in the room if you're not honest and that’s money. When we were looking for a partnership, we were looking for some sustainability and with that involves that cost investment and so that we're getting the most bang for our buck and that the university or who--whomever we chose to partner with, was going to then also get the same outcome.

I also would say a shared vision for the work. So when we were looking to find someone to work with us, focused around equity, it was "are we a good fit for you?" as the consultant or the--the organization, what you believe. And "are you a good fit for us? Do your beliefs coincide with our beliefs?" And then, finally, it's just that fit. Do you get a good vibe from us? And do we get that same good vibe for you? So I would say those were our non-negotiables.

It's really easy to look at what other districts are doing and go, "Oh, should I be there?" Or, um, "we're not doing that?" Everybody's district is different, and everybody has a different population with different needs. And everybody has a different story. And recognizing that and being okay with it, and then also taking advantage of the connections and the network that you make working with a university.

So, Rowan and Case and Dr. Zion, we joke, like, we've been singing her praises since we first started working with her. And now we're like, "don't tell anyone else." Right? Because she's going to get so busy that we're gonna have to fight to have time. I mean, it's not the case.

But now we have a network of how many other school districts that I can reach out to and say, "Hey, we're getting started with some curriculum work. I know Dr. Zion worked with you last year. What advice do you have? What pitfalls can you warn me about?"

And so, use that network but going, "it's okay that that district started the curriculum work first because we started student voice work first." And it's not a race and there's--everyone's gonna be on the journey at different points and join the journey at different points. And so how do we all just help each other on the journey, knowing that our destinations and our journey are going to look differently?

[end of Melissa’s section]

Elisa Lomon, District Supervisor of Math and Science, Delsea Regional School District

Elisa: Hi, I'm Elisa Lomon, District Supervisor of Math and Science at Delsea Regional School District.

Ken: Why form a partnership with a university? Why not just address it yourselves?

Melissa: Um, I think one thing that was important to us was when we first started the work, we didn't know where to begin. And so having the assistance of the university working with us, it really helped us create this foundation of where to begin. Are we going in the right direction? We knew that they had experience working with other schools, so that also helped us to get ideas from them to make sure the we're going on the right path.

We've changed our district goals to relate to equity. And so in our planning process, now that is our main focus for our district. And all of our [professional development] PD sessions will include some work about equity.

And working with the graduate students, I think, was, um, something new for our teachers to have, um, you know, the grad. students coming in, setting up meetings, observing teachers, observing classrooms. And then having, you know, report out sessions for the administrators to hear, you know, what they saw and, um, really take all of that in.

Our students are so empowered as well. And, because of the partnership with Dr. Zion and Case, these students have gone out and spoken to other administrators about the work that they're doing. They’ve talked to superintendents. And so they feel empowered and that's, you know, the greatest thing, I think, that’s come out of this work.

[end of Elisa’s section]
[end of administrator section]

Ken: It’s important that university and district partnerships are a two-way relationship. We're going to hear now from Dr. Shelley Zion about how she views this relationship from her side of the equation as a leader at her university.

University Perspective
Dr. Shelley Zion, Rowan University

Shelley: Hi, I'm Dr. Shelley Zion, Rowan University, Professor of Urban Education and Executive Director of the Center for Access, Success, and Equity [CASE].

Well, so equity is the focus of this partnership because it is the work of the Center. So my work over the last thirty years has been all centered around the idea of equity and how we create systems that are equitable for the most marginalized students.

When I started my career I was working as a social worker in juvenile justice, working with young people who had been adjudicated delinquent. It became really clear to me in the first years of doing that work that the young men and women I was working with were brilliant and really amazing young people, but that they had been taught, from their experiences in the education system, that they were less than, that they were not valued, that their way of seeing and being in the world didn't count. Um, so what they were doing was engaging in non-productive forms of resistance that harmed them rather than challenged the systems that were problematic.

So when I decided to do a PhD, I chose to go into education, seeing education as the one place that really has the opportunity to impact all people. And that if we could design an education system in such a way that it disrupted the sexist, patriarchal, capitalist, racist, institutionalized ways that we have operated as a country, we might actually be able to make a difference in the world. 
So that's why equity.

Ken: So when you think about partnering with districts, what--what is that? What's your philosophy? What does that look like?

Shelley: So the most important thing, I think, for me in working with districts, is starting in the--with the acknowledgment that we spent the last thousands of years, um, creating a really problematic system, and we're not going to fix that in a day or two or three.

Districts have the capacity, the control, the people, the investment in their communities, to do the work on the long term. They also need to have the skills, the tools, the resources, and the confidence, to do the work in an ongoing basis. Because, like I said, there's no silver bullet; it's not gonna change overnight. So, for me, working with districts is about building the capacity of the districts, the people, the people in the community, to do the work themselves.

And so I think we're trying to change systems. Systems are made up of people. The people who, kind of, own, live in, belong in that system are the ones that have to do the work and that our job should be to provide the resources, the tools, the skills, they need so that they can do it.

What I have is a really basic framework that says, "all stakeholders have to  be involved," which is why students, um, faculty, and staff and administration, need to have ways to participate and have input. I would say that I have a framework of critical consciousness, which is the idea that you have to know yourself, personally, who you are, what your identities are, how you view the world, what your values and belief are. Then you have to understand how the larger social structure systems, institutionalized processes, etc., situate you, given those identity groups.

Then you have to be able to have the skills, knowledge, and tools to take action, to change those things that are problematic.

So, that's really the two rules: everybody has to be included in the conversation and we start with knowing ourselves, then move to systems, then move to skills.

Other than that, everything else is depending on where the district is, where the people are, what they need to know and do. Um, what comes up, we grab a new tool, a new protocol, a new piece, a new [PD] activity,  a new whatever.

But, when I think, even over the last three years here in South Jersey, the seven [or] eight districts we're working with now, none of them have done the same thing, at the same time, in the same way.

[end of Shelley’s section]

Ken: The next partnership we'll hear about is one that is centered around cognitive-behavioral strategies. The partnership leverages PLCs across multiple districts to increase student and teacher well-being.

Can you just tell me your, uh, name, title, and institution?

Gail Verdi, Kean University

Gail: Sure. Gail Verdi, Acting Executive Director of the School of Curriculum and Teaching at Kean University.

Ken: You--you formed this partnership that we're going to be talking about today based on looking at teacher leadership, looking at promoting longevity in the teaching profession. Why did you feel that that needed to be a focus? Why did you feel that was important?

Gail: Well, we realized after looking at some statistics, that many teachers are leaving the profession after approximately five years. And we were thinking about ways to help novice teachers sustain their passion for teaching. In addition, we were interested in developing relationships with districts that would enable us to utilize their teacher leaders in terms of working with pre-service teachers.

It began with Dr. Pittman, who was our College of Ed. Dean. He had this idea and he came to me and asked me if I, uh, had any suggestions for how we might organize the grant. And we knew that wanted to work with the PLC model and that was part of the structure.

But we also brought in an expert from University of Pennsylvania, Amy Wenzel. And she, uh, provided workshops for the teachers on cognitive-behavioral strategies. She's a therapist that uses the approach in her--in her work. But she worked with me and the teachers and the district leaders on--on developing workshops that would include aspects of the strategies. Not so much for therapist but ways in which we could help teachers: 1. Sustain themselves based on the kinds of stresses that teachers experience, as well as their students, as well as the new novice teachers they're working with and pre-service teachers.

[end of Gail’s section]

Administrator Perspective: Part 2
BJ Brown Lawson, Evergreen Elementary and Sacha Slocum, William J. McGinn Elementary

BJ: Hi, I’m BJ Brown Lawson, Principal of Evergreen Elementary School in Plainfield. I've been in Plainfield since 1994.

Sacha: And I'm Sacha Slocum. I’m principal of William J. McGinn Elementary School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.

BJ: When I think about non-negotiables, I think about something that we absolutely have to have. And that the relationship that we already established, that that remain as a bond. And, uh, Kean was no stranger to Plainfield. I mean we've done other grants with, uh, Kean University.

Scotch Plains was no stranger because of our relationship with Sacha from her being from Plainfield. And also because of the fact that we maintained those relationships even after she left and went to Scotch Plains.

So when we think about non-negotiables, we always wanna make sure that that trust and that bond is lasting. No matter what, it's going to work because we have that bond.

Sacha: And I have to underscore that. That is exactly the way we feel in Scotch Plains-Fanwood. And--and having been in both districts, uh, when we started- Dr. Mast, again, Assistant Superintendent from our school, had called me about this grant opportunity and said, "you know, do you still have relationships with your colleagues in Plainfield?" And I knew that the grant was dependent on Plainfield's participation and Kean's participation, which immediately looks like a using relationship.

And I'm just gonna put that on the table because this--she just brought up the, you know, the—the elephant in the room that we always have to address, which is that, you know, what would the benefit be? There is that question for all three of us, you know. Where--where--you know, are you trying to take more from the other?

So from the beginning it--you have to build trusting relationships. It is a benefit to all three of us. We all three groups--we see --- we see-- we have different benefits, but we have to keep talking about them openly and honestly.

BJ (at same time): [murmuring in agreement]

Sacha: And, you know, fundamentally we believe that this is--this is good for kids.

A teacher from our first cohort, she is a Plainfield teacher and she is a bilingual teacher, as well. The work with Dr. Wenzel started in January when they started getting the courses of that first year. I think she had a fifth grade class that was very challenging. But, in particular, she had one student that had isolated herself in the class. She was completely disruptive. She was failing every—every subject area.

From day one, she took the information that she learned back to her classroom. Like, without telling anybody, she just kind of, uh, did this on her own. And, uh, she gave an inventory, like, I think the first week that Dr. Wenzel had mentioned, "Oh you can do an inventory of--of what you--what your automatic thoughts are about yourself and then you can see, well, what is really true? If it is true, how much does it matter? If it's not true, why are you worried about it?", kind of thing. It's a cognitive-behavioral therapy strategy.

So she created a checklist for her students, or it was really like a survey. It went zero to ten. Zero to ten, ten being the highest. How much do you feel like "number one - you have no friends? Number two, uh, you are no good in school. Number three -- " Those types of questions, very negative but her student that was really, really difficult, was all tens. All tens.

So she took that student and she met with her every week for lunch from the time this course started. And she went over the automatic thoughts. She said that we're gonna do this one at a time. We're gonna set one goal per week to work on. Something that you can do, including things she can do at home, 'cause most of this stuff did come from home.

By the end of the semester, she had not only changed the culture within her classroom, the student that was really challenging was an A student. She had tons of friends in the class, you know. Everything flipped around, and it was based on her being able to instantly implement this, uh, this approach.

BJ: Hmm. Yeah. The one that comes to my mind, and this was the purpose of the grant in terms of teachers and their mentees. We actually saw those skills transfer from one in the grant to one that was in the district and that made such a full, of just, came round circle.

[end of Administrator Perspective: Part 2 section]

Ken: There are so many great partnerships that have formed to increase educational opportunities across the state. We're going to be talking about these types of opportunities that you are a part of at our August 20th, 2019 #NJEdPartners Twitter chat.

Please join us whether you would like to talk about partnerships that you’re currently in or explore what other districts are doing around the state to consider how you can leverage their resources and their knowledge to replicate some of these great things where you are.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone, in the Apple podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

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Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.
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