Organizing for the schools our students and educators deserve
By Amanda Adams
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an eye-opening experience. I realized the importance of my health, the importance of my family, friends and colleagues and, among other things, the importance of teachers for public education.
COVID-19 has exposed persistent health and wealth gaps in the United States, and New Jersey has been no exception. Over the past two years, we have seen how the virus has particularly affected poor communities of color across the country. As we prepared to return to school last fall, the conversation shifted from student and family well-being to school safety and missed learning opportunities. I challenged myself to think about how my work could focus more on the most marginalized educators, students, and families in this state.
For the past seven years, I have been the coordinator of the NJEA’s Priority Schools Initiative. This initiative provided professional development to schools through collaborative leadership, data analysis and goal setting. Once administrators and staff created an implementation team comprised of a diverse representation of teachers, NJEA Priority School Consultants helped the school meet its success goals.
The program has been particularly effective in developing professional learning opportunities, creating student programs, and fostering collaboration and shared leadership. It was most successful when there was buy-in at all levels of the district.
In Linden, for example, we were invited by the local president to work in three school buildings, helping school leadership teams review data, set professional learning goals, and work to achieve those goals through strong professional learning communities.
When the literacy coach at one of the three schools saw results in increased student achievement, she brought our model to the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Before long, there was a district-wide model in all elementary schools in Linden fashioned after the NJEA’s Priority Schools Initiative. One of their schools, School No. 5, was given the high honor of becoming a National Blue Ribbon School in 2020. But that’s an unusual case — the Priority Schools initiative hasn’t generally gone down. maintained after consultants leave school or district leadership changes. .
The NJEA ACCESS model
Over the past two years, many articles have been published describing how so-called “community schools” have supported students and their families during the pandemic. These schools had systems in place to meet all of the unique needs of their communities before the pandemic. The National Education Association already recognizes community schools as “a strategy for advocating for racial justice in education and removing barriers that stand in the way of some students.” New Jersey public schools needed to evolve into a model that would support all of our students, especially those most deeply affected by the pandemic.
The Priority Schools Initiative has been transformed into the NJEA ACCESS Model, an acronym for A Community Collective for Equitable and Sustainable Schools. ACCESS is an opportunity for local associations to partner with full-time and part-time NJEA staff to organize around the creation and support of community schools. ACCESS works with local associations to identify and support leaders, to create community coalitions, to develop strategic campaigns towards community schools, to work in schools to improve the learning environment for students and to promote the leadership of teachers, and to engage the whole school community in healing. and well-being.
Complete and integrated objectives
The original objectives of the Priority Schools Initiative have been transformed into three overarching and integrated objectives.
The ACCESS model will harness the collective power of educators, families, students, and the community to improve student learning outcomes by helping local education associations negotiate for the common good. Negotiating for the common good may include the development of high quality professional learning, the provision of ethnic studies, training for culturally appropriate teaching, the integration of healing-centered and restorative practices, the provision integrated student supports and expanded learning time and opportunities.
The ACCESS model will create an environment that cultivates teacher leaders by fostering strong labour-management relationships. At the school building level, labour-management collaboration cultivates the expansion of teacher leadership, inclusive and collaborative leadership practices, empowered teachers, a community of professional learners, teachers’ personal growth, and an awareness of teachers as integral community resources.
Healing, equity and access
The ACCESS model will foster an environment that supports building a thriving community by addressing healing, equity, and access to education. ACCESS engages families and communities through the inclusive leadership of parents and other community members. ACCESS promotes results-based decision-making, shared learning and reflective practices around healing, equity and access. The model partners with community support services that recognize and address the impact of trauma.
Local associations and ACCESS
Over the past year, the education associations of Camden, Trenton, New Brunswick and Union Township have all embarked on this journey towards social justice in public education. Local association leaders and ACCESS model consultants were trained by the NEA Strategic Institute for Community Schools to begin working to identify and support local leaders, build community coalitions, and develop strategic campaigns for the spread of community schools. This work aims to create a strong education justice coalition that enables advocates to achieve the goals of the ACCESS model.
This year has been marked by new beginnings, including a new way of thinking about collective action and school improvement. Organizing is hard work, but there has never been a time in recent history when it has been more necessary to improve the working conditions of educators and the conditions of learning for students. And it seems there is no other way to change the giant system that is public education.
We can look at recent examples of successful recruiting efforts in Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and others. These local associations have taken up the challenge. It’s New Jersey’s turn to organize strategic campaigns focused on creating the schools that all of our students deserve, schools designed for the humanity of those who walk their halls.
Amanda Adams is associate director of the NJEA’s Division of Professional Development and Educational Affairs and coordinator of the NJEA ACCESS Model program. She can be contacted at [email protected]