Recruitment of New Jersey residents to volunteer at schools has been slow, with less than a tenth of projected helpers signing up, according to an update Wednesday at the state Board of Education meeting.
Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner for the state Department of Education, said the department had received applications from 400 individuals and organizations out of the 5,000 it sought.
Applicants are hoping to participate in the New Jersey Partnership for Student Success (NJPSS), an effort Governor Phil Murphy announced in early December, to address academic and mental health challenges related to the pandemic in schools. In January, Allen-McMillan notified the board that 330 people and organizations had signed up.
The Partnership, part of a national effort, should recruit, screen, train and support volunteer tutors, mentors and student success coaches. It will “create an opportunity for members of the wider community to engage in supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic needs,” Murphy said in December.
At its first in-person meeting in nearly three years, Allen-McMillan told the state council the department is continuing to seek “5,000 concerned adults by December 2023.” In January, education officials said they hoped to have “something to do over the next few months.”
Allen-McMillan said people who signed up received additional correspondence from the department last week. “It’s very exciting as we move forward,” he said.
One volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous, said they had volunteered for the effort in December and only received a welcome email from the department on February 23, followed by a retraction, repeated welcome emails, and another retraction. It doesn’t inspire confidence, they say.
Education advocates hope this volunteer effort will be effective.
“It’s not too late to revive this effort, but the lesson here is that improvements in education require more than publicity and goodwill,” said Paula White, executive director of JerseyCAN, a school advocacy group. “We have an implementation problem in education, and the only way to solve it is to have a mature academic plan and then work out the important logistics so that people on the ground can do the unpleasant work of solving it. until the end.”
Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents nearly 100 New Jersey districts, said the group is taking a “wait and see” approach to the partnership.
“This is not something that most of my members talk about, because so few details (and apparently very few individuals) are available,” he said. “We have questions about who will train these volunteers and how they will be used in schools.” He was concerned that the country would not be able to recruit the thousands of people it had hoped for because so many people had returned to their jobs and regular activities.
“If the NJPSS helps build partnerships with organizations that can address the training and other issues (such as mandated criminal background checks) that accompany volunteers, the initiative may have value,” he said. “However, the skills of the volunteers must match the existing needs.”
Scott Taylor, district superintendent of Township of Union, said district officials have not heard anything from the department about the program.
“People in my circle haven’t discussed the initiative either, maybe because it’s so new and so little has been shared with the district,” he said.
Steven Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the union is focused on addressing teacher and other staff shortages.
“We had concerns from the start about the advisability of relying on volunteers to address challenges that required deep professional expertise and sustained effort,” he said. “We are working to ensure there are enough qualified professionals to provide our students with the education and support they need to emerge from the challenges of the pandemic.”
David Jefferson, Sr., pastor of the Newark Metropolitan Baptist Church, has written about how parents want to fight learning loss. She ran a tutoring program at the church during the pandemic with Great Oaks Charter School and the New Jersey Children’s Foundation but said she had never heard of the program.
“I want to participate in an arrangement where we bring churches together and get pastors and even people who may have retired to try and get them registered,” he said. He advocated expanding the school week and ending the practice of passing students on to the next grade when they had not yet graduated.
Oscar James II, a former Newark city councilor who blogs Newark Truth, said he had seen no advertising or outreach for the program. He said volunteer tutors need to be properly trained in the curriculum because students build skills in a specific order.
“You need an individual success plan for each child if you really want to help wherever they are,” he says.
The education department did not immediately respond to requests for information about how the state advertised the need for tutors, beyond that Twitter feed.
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Tina Kelley can be reached at [email protected].