By Cheryl Conway
Anyone who has attended the last few Mt. Olive Board of Education meetings will most likely agree that there has been an overload of dissent, conflicts, investigations and a sense of disrespect to district leaders, board members and administrators.
But today’s summary of what is happening within Mt. Olive School District will, for now, look past the discontent, and rather focus on the progress from the past school year and what lies ahead.
Mt. Olive Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Zywicki recently engages board members and the community to Mt. Olive Tiers of Success as part of his BOE report and to parents who tuned in to the last Parent’s University.
In a telephone interview with Mt. Olive Online, he summarizes last year’s progress and touches on what lies ahead for this current school year.
For the 2021-2022 school year- Zywicki commends the district for getting through the third year of the pandemic.
“It seems like a blur,” he says. Last January, the district was at an “ultimate low point” of the pandemic in which 1,000 kids and staff members were exposed and waiting results.
It was “absolutely exhausting,” he says. But the district still continued to attend classes in person; virtual option was still provided to those who were either sick or needed to quarantine.
“We did it and got through it,” says Zywicki. Then in March 7, the school district dropped its mask requirement when the New Jersey governor dropped the state mandate.
“We didn’t shut down for weeks,: he says. “We kept going; it was very tough but we did it for the kids.”
Sustainable & Digital Recognition
Another success from the last school year was having all six of its schools being recognized as a Jersey Sustainable and Digital Star School by the N.J. School Board Association.
The Mt. Olive schools were recognized as leaders in the state when it comes to digital learning practices and commitment to sustainability.
Two sets of awards were received for each school, explains Zywicki.
To earn the sustainability certification, schools are considered in various areas such as energy efficiency for school facilities; healthy food choices; promotion of locally grown foods; green cleaning policy & plan; classroom cleanup practices; school culture and climate needs assessment; social emotional learning; education for sustainability; programs to promote physical activity; indoor air quality review.
As far as its Digital Star School recognition, MOSD is one of just a handful of districts in the state to have all of its schools earn a Digital School Star. The program is offered in partnership with the N.J. Department of Education and the N.J. School Boards Association.
To earn a Digital School Star, each school submitted a comprehensive application detailing its efforts in many action areas: Application of digital learning tools and content; teaching of digital citizenship; data safety and security; infrastructure; equitable access to digital learning.
Some highlights cited were the district’s advanced wireless network; 1:1 Chromebook deployment to students; extensive use of the Google educational suite of applications and resources; development of a personalized success plan for each student; hybrid learning practices; and various digital communication methods such as school newsletters, social media, superintendent’s weekly blog and video messaging.
Another success last year was the MOHS being named a model school.
In June, MOHS was one of just 16 schools in the country to be selected as a 2022 Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education, an organization that supports effective instructional practices that lead to accelerated learning for all students.
Some successful initiatives implemented over the past several years to help earn this recognition were a result of the district’s long-term plan. These included a data-driven remediation system to tailor instruction for each student’s needs, blended learning programs, and unique new courses in computer science, robotics, business, anatomy, social studies and special education.
Also put into place were new initiatives to address social and emotional learning, school climate and student conduct and instructional equity.
Graduation rates, access to AP courses and the RTI (Response To Intervention) program for reading instruction were also considered in this recognition, says Zywicki.
Equity Task Force
Last school year, MOSD made some great strides though its Equity Task Force.
“Belonging was our first mission,” says Zywicki. Next was to dig deeper into policies and procedures.
“Some people are very upset about looking at data,” says Zywicki. “We had numbers we had to mitigate. We made progress,” he says, and “gave a common language” so all can have a sense of belonging.
Even with the pandemic and restrictions, the MOSD was able to pull off some sizeable capital projects to improve district facilities.
The second phase of Chester M. Stephens Elementary School was completed with $1.5 million in improvements that include a renovated gymnasium, classrooms, hallways and lockers.
The baseball field at the high school was revitalized and transformed into a new multi-purpose sports field to be used for a variety of sports.
The district is currently in the process of updating its track facilities at the high school.
Looking Forward To Normal
As the current school year is a month underway, Zywicki shares what he anticipates for this school year.
“Our aspiration is normal,” says Zywicki. “We want things to be as normal as possible.”
With all of its plans, policies and programs in place, Zywicki says the time is now for “getting better and developing our people.”
Instead of always looking to bring outside experts to engage with district educators, this year’s focus is “trying to harness the expertise of our faculty; our teachers training teachers; using experts and resources we have in the district.”
Parent Universities grew out of the pandemic, but will not be an endemic. Zywicki plans to continue communicating with parents through Parent Universities to keep all abreast of what is happening in MOSD, he says.
“More communication is needed” with him and the parents, he says.
As the masks are off and the district returns to normal, it is time to catch for the district to catch its breath.
MOSD is “not rolling out any major initiatives,” this year, says Zywicki.
Health and Fitness Education is one new initiative but even that is being “paused” in being rolled out to allow time for meetings and proper presentation to parents, he says. Teachers are still working in professional learning communities “to digest state standards.”
The district is getting back to offering day trips.
“Hopefully it is that true return to normal,” says Zywicki.
The greatest challenge, he says, is the increase in enrollment this year. MOSD is up 150 kids “today than last year,” and to that “space is getting tight.” MOSD is considering a referendum to expand.
“We’re getting tight for space,” says Zywicki. “We need to focus on our facilities. The district is growing. Our classroom sizes are up. We’re tight for space because people want to be here.”
Zywicki would not specify if that expansion means larger facilities or more buildings. Those answers will come after an updated demographic study and direction from the BOE.
MO Tiers of Success
At the August 22 BOE meeting, Zywicki presents the 2022-2023 Mt. Olive Tiers of Success.
“All means all,” as he stresses in the first slide, referring to all students matter whether in terms of SWOT- Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
He goes over the district’s goals set from 2019-2023 and reviewed the action steps for 2022-2023.
He discusses the three tiers of support for RTI (Response to Intervention): Core Classroom Instruction; Targeted Small Group Instruction; Intensive Individual Intervention.
The main part of his presentation focuses on the new three tiers of Success: Belong; Believe; and Succeed.
“First and foremost, we need to make kids feel like they belong,” says Zywicki. “Coming out of the pandemic, there’s lots of kids that feel like they don’t belong. They are not alright. They feel like things have been done to them. They are on their devices nonstop. Everything’s on Tic Toc and Snapchat…and they’ve had to deal with economic stability and inflation. Our kids need to feel like they belong.”
To do this, Zywicki says students need physical and emotional safety; as well as inclusion, access and equity. They need to understand that from pre-kindergarten through grade 12, “you are a Marauder for life.” With that mentality, students will be engaged and see themselves as a reflection in highly trained, diversified faculty and staff.
Second tier: “Our kids need to feel like they believe,” he says. “Who is the most successful?” He says the ones who go out for Navy SEALs, “They believe they are going to complete the mission. They know they are going to get it done. Kids are setting goals for themselves and they believe they can make progress…..even though it’s not going to be plan A,” it’s probably going to be plan C or D.
To believe, students set goals and adhere to their personalized success plans with enrichments and intervention whether that means gifted and talented or special education.
The last tier is to succeed. “Highest thing is success,” says Zywicki. “Kids can achieve those goals.” Through this tier, students will achieve their personalized success plan goals.
“We are an exceptional place,” says Zywicki. Students will list their four personalized learning goals every year: Academic, wellness, love or learning, and social and emotional learning goals.
As part of his presentation, Zywicki discusses the district’s top six goals for this school year.
First goal is to provide the most innovative and safe learning environment possible for the MOSD community.
This will be done by completing all BOE summer 2022 capital projects; continue to design physical and virtual learning spaces; update the unified district security manual; conduct an inter-district unification drill and security audit with a district-wide threat assessment.
Goal two is institutionalize personalized learning so all students get rigorous and relevant academic experiences that produce future ready graduates.
According to a 2017-2018 ESSA School Accountability Profile by the N.J. Department of Education, white students and the schoolwide ratio did not meet the target in its PARCC scores in mathematics. Black or African American students did not meet the target for its graduation rate; and economically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities, did not meet the state average by being listed with chronic absenteeism.
Goal three is the establish and enhance social-emotional learning programs to develop the EQ of all learners. This will be done by implementing social and emotional learning programs through the Mt. Olive Tiers of Success; screen students for at risk behaviors; expand SEL programs to include development and wellness of faculty and staff; and conduct a seven-year analysis of suspensions, violence, vandalism, discipline and HIB’s.
“Our staff have been traumatized,” says Zywicki. “Past three years have been terrible. Pandemic happened. In March 2020 everyone was heroes and by October 2022 teachers are evil; people are wearing masks. They’ve been through the ringer.
“We need to make sure we support them as well,” says Zywicki, about teachers, faculty and staff.
Goal four is to recruit, develop, and retain the most highly skilled workforce to serve MOSD. One idea is to get as many student teachers as possible; and also go beyond a 20 miles radius in N.J. seeking applicants from New York or other areas. Also to create university partnerships for recruiting and professional development.
Goal five is to embrace multimedia communication strategies to engage the entire community. Some action steps include launching an updated district website by February 2023; conduct at least six Parent University sessions this school year; and ensure that all district web sources are ADA-compliant.
Goal six is to ensure compliance, transparency and fiscal responsibility of MOSD programs and operations. Some of these action steps include maintaining an operating budget with its 2% revenue cap and zero base budgeting: report progress to the Equity Task Force; ensure compliance with policy-driven handbooks for students and staff; and by June 2023, launch the 2023-2027 strategic planning process.
There will be 40 to 60 community members active in the district’s next four-year strategic plan.