MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — In the cafeteria of the middle school last Wednesday, parents, school staff and community members sat in small groups around the lunch tables, ready to offer their opinions.

At each table was a large piece of paper and some markers. Their task for the evening was simple: Write down what is going right with the school district.

“The first step is to bring the community together and ask, ‘What’s good about this place? Why do you want to be here?’ The second session will be ‘OK, how do we get better?’” said Jerry Woehr, one of two educational consultants working on a five-year strategic plan for the district.

The school district’s diversity was cited as a strength by both staff members and parents, Woehr said. Parents also see the teachers in the township as caring and dedicated.

The 90-minute session was the first of three planned at the school to help develop a new five-year plan. A similar process undertaken in 2013 helped develop the current strategic plan, which district officials say gives community members a voice in the district’s goals and initiatives, and in how to improve the township schools as a whole.

With fellow consultant Charles Ivory, Woehr talked those gathered in the gym through the process. Each person was asked to write down ideas on a section of paper.

The group at each table then sought three items they could all agree on, which one member told to the whole group.

The facilitators made sure there were both school staff and parents at each table.

The next meeting, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Dec. 9, will cover some of the problems in the district, with a final meeting planned for Jan. 22 at the same time to consolidate a plan. Each meeting is at the cafeteria of the middle school, 300 E. Pacific Ave.

Ivory helped work on the district’s strategic plan for 2014-19, which focused on community engagement, budget and finance, curriculum and school climate. In May and June 2013, a similar series of public meetings was held to gain insight into community priorities.

Through the fall of that year into the winter of 2014, school administrators analyzed thousands of comments and took the plan from a draft to its adopted form. Goals included improving communication with the community, increasing technology, maintaining buildings and grounds, and increasing classroom time for students.

Each goal also outlined steps to be taken and identified who was responsible for its implementation.

At the end of the process, the district expects to have a new five-year plan in place, “which will drive the district’s efforts and financial resources on mutually determined goals that support the needs of students,” according to a statement from the district.

Ivory said the consultants have worked with 50 school districts across the state.

Woehr said the meetings sought to use synergy to improve the district, meaning the combined efforts of the community were worth more than the sum of their parts.

“There is no one here who is not invested in Middle Township schools,” he said. “The reason for that is that if you’re a business owner, your taxes are going to be paying for that. If you happen to be a senior citizen, you invested in that because your home quality is going to be based on the quality of the school. If you’re a teacher, if you’re a parent, you understand that we want as much representation as we can to come up with the best plan.”

According to Woehr, the fee for the project is $800 for each session, for a total of $2,400.

Those interested in participating in the strategic planning initiative can call Martha Crawley at the school superintendent’s office, 609-465-1800, ext. 3100, or email crawleym@middletwp.k12.nj.us.

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