New Jersey Department of Education

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Episode 13: Leveraging the NJDOE as a Resource

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


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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: Welcome to the DOE Digest. I’m your host, Ken Bond. In today's episode, I'm thrilled to be bringing you a topic that is near and dear to my heart. We're going to be talking with Camden City School District about how to leverage the New Jersey Department as a resource.

When I started out teaching English as a second language and coordinating the program for my school district, there was a lot of policy and procedures that I did not understand. I also wanted to gain insights on how to be a better teacher and improve the instruction in my classroom.

I reached out to the Department staff through different professional learning opportunities and I was able to really hone in my craft as an ESL teacher and coordinator. I hope that this episode will help you understand resources that are available for you to leverage as teachers and as administrators and school districts.

Before I move into the next part of the episode I wanted to bring up an event around welcoming newcomer students with interrupted formal educations. This is going to be on May 20, 2020, and to find out more simply search for "NJDOE events" in your web browser and it should come up in your search results. [NJDOE Calendar of Events].

Now let’s join the conversation I had with Camden City School District staff.

Camden City School District

Katrina McCombs, State Superintendent

Katrina: Hi, my name is Katrina McCombs and I’m the State Superintendent of the Camden City Public School District.

Ken: So, as State Superintendent of Camden—it’s a very large district—you need to interface with New Jersey Department of Education staff members. What advice would you give to an educator interacting with the Department for the first time, in thinking about how to engage with Department around something that they're working on?

Katrina: I would say first be ready to collaborate, and to be definitely ready to connect and network with individuals. There are specific areas and specific priorities that we have, and as an educator or a leader of a school system, it's important for you to assess, "what are those areas that are going to help to move the needle quickest?" And then "how can I partner with DOE? In what specific areas?” To make sure that there is alignment, that there's cohesion and synergy around moving those areas forward.

I am leveraging all of the connections and relationships that I can, with DOE, in order to make sure that we’re setting the district up for sustainable, local control. So I would give that advice to other leaders and educators.

Leaders are often very independent. They’re driven. They’re focused. However, it’s really, really important as a leader to hone that skill too, of being a great collaborator and networker, all for the expected..of..end of ensuring that your district’s goals are met.

Ken: So, you’ve created new learning environments for students, in several ways, since the time you started here in Camden as State Superintendent. Can you tell me about some of the projects your district has worked on and how you have brought the Department in as a partner in that work?

How have you specifically sought—sought to partner with the Department to—to leverage the resources that the Department has.

Katrina: Absolutely. So we really believe in creating new, innovative ways to solve consistent systemic problems. So one of the areas in our district that we have been focusing on is “what do we do to really move the needle on academic achievement?”

So accelerating student achievement is very critical. It is very important that we make sure that we're leveraging DOE to help us solve some of the—the persistent challenges to academic achievement.

So one way that we've been able to do that this year, and this was actually born out of, I’d say, adversity, right? So adversity can lead to new thinking and new ways of approaching a problem for a greater solution.

And so one example we had is about, this time last year we were faced with fiscal challenges and--which we continue to be faced with—but we knew we had to consolidate some buildings because as enrollment shifts, we have to make sure that our  building portfolios shifts too.

And so we're faced with closing one of our schools, um, the Veterans School. And because there was such a community affinity to the school, and there was a lot of community support rallying around the Vet School, we had to take a step back and decide, “Okay. We want to make sure that we're making fiscal gains but at what cost?”

And so we decided in collaborating with the Commissioner, also collaborating with Marie Blistan who’s the head of NJEA, and others, and the school, that we needed to think of a different plan that wasn't so divisive. And so we were able to keep Vets open. And now we are partnering with the DOE, and with NJEA, and our local CEA—and government—in order to make resources [unclear] Vets to transform it into a community school.

A decision was made. We had to step back on that decision, but now, “how do we move together?”

The community school model at Vets is very different, and that model, as whole, across the nation is different because at the heart of the school is the desire to make sure that it is a one-stop shop for parents to get the resources, the social connections, the academic supports that they will need in order to nurture their childrens’ academic outcomes.

And so the design of a community school is very intentional. We’re looking at “what are those outcomes that are going to help us make sure that our achieving?” And then, “what partnerships can we leverage within the community, social service agencies, health agencies?”  We even focus on dental health and well-being. All those barriers that would stop a child from being able to successfully show up for school every day and learn.

The design of the community school model is to intentionally figure out how to partner in order to remove those barriers. And so I think that’s the big difference. It is my expectation that each and every one of my leaders knows how to leverage and engage the community.

But for this model, it is an intentional hallmark of the school to be able to say, “Hey, we have a coordinated set of partnerships that are helping us in the various priorities that the school has set up.”

This community school model has really been a nexus for us all to really work together toward making sure that families of Vets have what they need. We’re looking forward to the launch of Welcome Center at Vets, which will help to be a place and a hub for parents coming from different countries into the district. And also, just parents who English may not be their first language. Where they can pick up resources to support them in the transition into the country, as well as into our district.

So, we’re really excited about that. That’s been, I think, one of the most prominent ways that we have partnered with DOE and others to really turn something that could have been a negative situation into a positive outcome for families and students and staff.

Ken: How did you and your staff make the initial connections with the Department as you were looking to leverage the resources that the NJDOE has and build those partnerships so that we could work together for the students of--of Camden?

Katrina: So in stepping into this role—first, I’ve been an educator here in the Camden City School District for, this is my 26th year in the district, and I was also born and raised here, graduating from Camden High School, always have to shout out my alma mater, in 1987.

So what’s best for this district is really in my heart. And I want to be able to leave a legacy, um, that’s going to be something great that the district look[s] toward for years to come and that’ll support our students moving forward.

So, in stepping into this seat as a--a State Superintendent, one of the first relationships that I was able to build was actually with the new Commissioner of Education. At that time, he was Acting – Dr. Repollet. And so that primary relationship actually helped me to understand, at the very beginning, um, that the Department really cared about what was happening here in the city and to all the students across the district.

And so from there I was also able to connect closer with my, um County Superintendent, Dr. Lovell Pugh-Bassett, and her team, as they also provide professional development on a monthly basis to all superintendents.

As they have had an open-door policy for any questions that I might have as a new superintendent, you know. [unclear] from a very holistic perspective, being concerned about the leadership of the district and how we’re moving forward. And being concerned about me as a leader of the district.

I can say on many levels from the Commissioner to the County teams that he has in place, and also to the specific departments at DOE. One of the areas that comes to mind is our Career Technical Education programs. Um, we’ve been able to really reboot and really start over from a clean slate. Which means we had to shift around those things that did not work and now begin a new pathway so that we’re ensuring our students are able to get certified in those areas for CTE and have flourishing opportunities when they leave.

Those are just a few of the connections that have been very, very integral in helping to ensure that Camden is moving forward in a way that is going to be sustainable.

Ken: So another role that--that we have at the Department is promoting equity. And I wanted to hear from you about how districts, and district leaders, and educators can really leverage the Department for equity in their schools, and their classrooms, and in their district as whole.

Katrina: I believe that the more we intentionally continue to collaborate with the Department, and also ensure that legislation is reflective of the desire--of the desired outcome of equity, then we will achieve that goal. I think it is attainable. We are still working toward that end. And I look forward to seeing the positive effects of really seeing some these equity planning and PD sessions, what they’re going to yield for our state and our district as we move forward.

Ken: For educators who want to build a rapport with Department staff in their area of expertise or influence, what would you recommend for that and that outreach? And--and also to be able to have those conversations? Because, you know, like you said, it takes trust. So, how do you build that trust with staff at the Department?

Katrina: First and foremost, it may seem very simple, but you have to reach out. So I would say first, get to know the organizational structure of the Department of Education. Get to know what each division is responsible for, and get to know the key players who are pushing the agenda and the work in those Divisions. I would say do that first.

And then make sure that you’re aligning your outreach efforts. Because we know leaders don’t have a lot of extra time, right? So everything that we do has to be strategic and intentional. So align your district and strategic priorities for your plan to, "Okay, who is it who's leading the work that could help me to make the most impact or the--the greatest yield on what I'm looking to accomplish as a leader?" and once you determine that, then I would say: outreach, send an email, pick up the phone, make a quick phone call – if you can't get through directly to the Department originally, then reach out to your county superintendent. They definitely have access as well, but I would say don't stop trying until you make the connections that you know as a leader are going to help you to push your agenda forward because that's what the Department is there for - to really support. And a lot of times I think, as leaders, we may not always leverage all of the supports because we have not made ourselves aware of the vast array of resources that the Department has to offer.

So yeah! I would say do your homework, know what's available, know who's leading the work, know your plan, and then use them to help you to move your, your plan forward.

Ken: Superintendent McCombs talked about all that they were doing to make Veterans School a community school and make it a success. I was able to sit down with the principal of Vets and talk with her and how she's accessed resources at the Department, including those resources that have helped her school succeed.

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Veteran's Memorial Family School

Danette Sapowsky, Principal

Danette: I'm Danette Sapowsky, I'm the principal at Veterans Memorial Family School in Camden, New Jersey. This is my 36th year in the district. I've been a teacher and a teacher trainer, a vice principal, and now principal for going on 12 years.

Ken: So from what I understand, you've been involved in many different relationships in terms of leveraging the Department and the resources that the Department has to offer. One that I know that you've been involved with was the Principal Learning Network, is that correct?

Danette: Yes, mm-hmm.

Ken: So could you tell me a little bit about how you found out about it, how you signed up for it, and then what that experience has been like?

Danette: Something that I highly recommend all educators and teachers that I work with to do is to constantly be researching and looking for opportunities so we can continue to refine our practice and so there was an invitation sent with the DOE for leaders to participate in the training through the DOE. I was able to work with my school district to register and be approved to participate in the Academy.

Ken: That's great, so tell me a little bit about that experience.

Danette: Oh my goodness, it's been amazing. It's been amazing. Even though I've been in this field for 36 years, it's just a reminder you never learn everything. The thing that stands out most is the approach to "systems thinking," which is what the focus of the Leadership Academy is. I've learned that the opposite of quality is variability and so we're working in our school organization to ensure that the services we provide to our families and to our students and to our staff are constant, right? They are at a level of quality that remains the same every day so it’s helped to crystallize that idea. It embraces the idea of collaboration and working together. I mean the idea that you don't necessarily have to have a one-size-fits-all solution but work to eliminate the root causes or deficits. And so by doing that, you strengthen the organization and you build that quality.

I've also learned how important it is, when you build that organization, you want to be able to sustain the work you've accomplished and so when you have partnerships like what the DOE has partnered with us to help us build those relationships - you want to make sure you have everything in place so that after your work is done, it can continue long after you're gone, right?

Ken: So what are some ways that educators can access specific resources at the New Jersey Department of Education? So you talk to one resource

that was kind of open to all, right?

Danette: Right.

Ken: What are some ways that, in Camden, and that you, have looked to open up specific pathways and that you can leverage the Department for?

Danette: So I want to start first with that I believe it's very important that that teachers invest, right? And so what I mean by that is - there are many resources, for example beyond on this Leadership Academy, I had the opportunity to work closely with other members that are part of the Leadership Academy, which there are a number of representatives from different departments in the DOE, and it's been a real learning experience because you find out there are many opportunities, resources, grants that you didn't weren't aware are available.

So I think investing your time in finding opportunities through the website - I just looked last night to continue to see what other additional opportunities there are for me or for my teachers because we have a model in our school where we coach, the administrators in the school coach, the teachers and so you always want to, when you give them feedback, tell them how they can build that skill or strategy. So, looking on the website, there are many, many, many opportunities.

Being a part of the Leadership Academy has given me an opportunity to network, that's another way to do it. And then this school year, with our partnership with the Department of Education, with Veterans Memorial Family School being scheduled to close and the Department of Ed stepping up behind us and saying, "we're gonna provide a lot of supports so that we can be a model for the state and the district." It's been just tremendous.

So building those relationships and seeing that those people who we've worked with closely - Dr. Wright and Kwame Floyd and the Commissioner of Education and the list goes on and on. People that come to meetings to brainstorm, share ideas, problem-solve, speak to how - again - we can sustain this work and provide opportunities to our community at large as well as in our school and in our school district.

Ken: You know one, one piece of, of what you've been talking about is really just being at the table, right? If the Department's at the table, if the district's at the table - that's when kind of that synergy happens, right? Because without that, without that...

Danette: There's not alignment...

Ken: Right, without that collaboration and without that synergy, there's, there's not alignment. So, if a district's thinking, "wow I would really like to be able to connect with the Department." What would you suggest for an educator or administrator who may be new to this process, maybe new to New Jersey, maybe new to interacting with the Department - how can they, how can they jump in? What, what, what entry points would you encourage them to look at?

Danette: Again, I have to say invest time into looking at the website. If you just look at the website, and you make yourself aware of what is the vision and the mission of the state of New Jersey, what the Commissioner speaks about around equity and college and career readiness, and, and then further investigate – there are all kinds of webinars and workshops and resources and so I would say start there.

Podcasts are another great way that educators can get information, school districts can get information, and it's just been amazing to me through the networking that you're reminded that the people that work in the DOE - many of them, that I've come across while I've been walking through the doors, are actually educators that worked in Camden previously! And so you have those connections that you may have. It may be true for other school districts, as well, right? I think you have to be willing to invest time and reach out to those resources. The web - there are names of Department heads and phone numbers on the website, like people to reach out to. Do those things and you'd be amazed at the window of opportunities that opens for your school.

I think the things through my 36 years that have been most successful are where the people who have the ability to make the decisions don't make the decisions and walk away, but roll up their sleeves and be part of the work that it's going to take to get you where you need to be. And they certainly have done that in a major way.

Ken: To close this episode I interviewed Dr. Anthony Wright from the New Jersey Department of Education about how he sees collaboration between districts and the New Jersey Department of Education, especially in his work with Camden.

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Division of Student Services, New Jersey Department of Education

Dr. Anthony Wright, Acting Deputy Assistant Commissioner

Dr. Wright: Dr. Anthony Wright, Acting Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the division of Student Services here at the New Jersey Department of Education.

Ken: So, Dr. Wright, I'm really excited to talk to you about your involvement with Camden and just the process of coming alongside and helping districts leverage all that we have to offer here. So, could you tell me a little bit about the process of how you got started working with, with Camden - the initial outreach and where, where it went from there?

Dr. Wright: Okay, well, thank you for having me. First and forthright, the Commissioner asked me to assist the district in terms of best leveraging their federal use of their – best leveraging the use of their federal dollars because of some shortfalls in the budget and to really assist the district and provide them some targeted resources in their academic programming. It was decided that - that we the New Jersey Department education would provide them support and resources into transitioning the Vet School into a community school concept. We thought that because of those inherent strengths of that that we would introduce the notion of a welcome center.

And the Welcome Center would be to provide intake as well as services for families of English learners throughout the district. And so we're happy to announce that we've come up with three articulated goals that will guide our work in the establishing of the Welcome Center in terms of dividing, um, providing those intake services for English Learner families throughout the district. And so we're looking forward to our launch and dedication on Friday, March 27th at 10 o'clock.

So, one of the ways of the Department - the Department has assisted the district as well as the school in establishing the Welcome Center we've provided them with timely and relevant information on what the community schools concept is and what it looks like through different lenses of various states. One of the things, that central pieces of guiding this work is the newcomer toolkit provided by the US Department of Education, updated in 2017, and so using that as a prototype as well. Providing other resources in terms of the focus is on literacy and leadership development throughout the district and so bringing in and partnering with publishing companies to provide it, um, provide Book Fair, libraries, and classroom sets of multicultural literature.

[end of section]


Ken: All of us here at the New Jersey Department of Education hope that you found this episode helpful. There's so many ways to engage with the Department and we hope that this has given you a few ideas about how to do so.

I'd like to invite you to the #NJEdPartners Twitter chat on March 17, 2020 at 8:30 p.m. We're going to be discussing this topic about all the ways that districts and educators can connect with the Department and access the resources that we have.

As always, I'd like to thank Elizabeth Thomas for the amazing work that she does in transcribing this podcast so that it's accessible to all. [And shout out to Ashley Stenger for her assistance in transcribing this episode].

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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