N.J. School Board learns of test results, mental health aid, and volunteer shortage


More than half of New Jersey students need some or strong support in English/Language Arts, and almost three-quarters need that level of help in math, according to results from the fall Start Strong assessments, which the Department of Education presented to the state Board of Education Wednesday.

The assessments, a shorter version of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments, were given first in 2021 after the 2020 and 2021 NJSLA tests were canceled in the spring because of the pandemic. The test divides children into those who need strong support, some support, and less support.

In English Language Arts statewide, 54.6% of students needed some or strong support, with fifth, ninth, and tenth graders testing the highest. There was a downward trend between the two years of the test — only in 4th grade did the percentage of students needing the most support decline.

In Math statewide, 71.7% of students needed some or strong support, but generally, they performed better than in the previous year. The state did not release school-by-school results, and department officials have not decided if the test will be given again next fall.

Gaps in student performance persisted by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, and for English language learners and students with disabilities, although in several categories, those with disabilities showed marked progress.

The board also learned of a new five-year, $14 million federal School Based Mental Health Services grant to increase the number of psychologists, counselors, and social workers in the state’s highest-need schools. The state will match the funds with up to $1 million each year.

New Jersey will receive $3.2 million the first year and at least $2.7 million annually in the next four, to be distributed to districts through a competitive grant process focusing on communities with high poverty and the greatest need. The money will also help encourage diverse professionals to provide school-based mental health services.

Wednesday’s meeting was virtual, as it has been since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite calls from education advocates, the New Jersey Education Association, and bipartisan legislators, who introduced a bill requiring both in-person and virtual opportunities to attend.

At the December meeting, Board President Kathy Goldenberg had said she hoped a hybrid system could begin in January. But on Wednesday, she said, “we are still asking the Department to do this for us.”

Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan was absent from the meeting, with no explanation given to the board. Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy’s office denied a report that he had decided to replace her. But he did not acknowledge her among the six department heads he thanked Tuesday in the State of the State address, which mentioned education mostly in passing. When asked why the commissioner was absent, the department press office did not immediately respond.

Serving in her place, Assistant Commissioner Kathleen Ehling told the board that out of a hoped-for 5,000 volunteers, only 330 individuals and organizations had applied to work with NJPSS as tutors, student success coaches, and post-secondary school advisors.

Julie Bunt, the acting chief of staff, said the department is working with the National Partnership for Student Success on ways to find more volunteers.

After Board member Mary Beth Berry asked how the department would ensure students were safe with volunteers, Ehling said it would use existing safety requirements. Some organizations volunteering for the effort may be able to train and fingerprint volunteers, who could begin working “over the next couple months,” department officials said.

At the meeting’s end, the board did not take a vote, requested by vice president Andrew Mulvihill, to change the wording of the state’s proposed Equality and Equity in Education policies.

The current policy allows districts to hold separate human sexuality classes “for male and female students” so long as students receive the same lessons. This could put trans or nonbinary students in the potential position of outing themselves. The proposed revision would allow districts to separate classes “based on gender identity.”

Mulvihill has argued that in protecting transgender and nonbinary students, the revised policy would discriminate against sis gender girls who would not want trans girls in their classes about puberty. He said in his 10 years on the board, he had never received so many comments from the public – almost 1,000 – on any other issue. The New Jersey Family Policy Center, a religious-based advocacy group that opposes the state’s sex education standards, issued a letter-writing campaign about the proposed change that reportedly resulted in 945 letters.

But department officials and other school board members noted that under state and federal anti-discrimination laws, a student’s gender identification is a private matter.

“As a public policy-setting body, we need to recognize that it’s an extraordinarily private conversation for moms, dads, parents, and guardians across New Jersey and truly around the world,” Board Member Joseph Ricca said. “It’s not our business to ask. When a child comes to school, it is a self-selected process around gender, and that’s the end of the conversation.”

“There’s so much politics in this conversation it frankly makes my stomach hurt,” he said, addressing any trans or nonbinary people in the audience. “You need to know that not all of us feel like there’s something wrong with you.”

The board went into executive session to hear legal advice from the Attorney General’s office about whether the board could vote to ask for changes in the policy. Later, in the public portion of the meeting, Goldenberg said Mulvihill had withdrawn his question, and the board did not vote on the wording or on the other equity policies, which it will consider at a future meeting.

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Tina Kelley may be reached at tkelley@njadvancemedia.com.


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