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South Jersey increases opportunities for residents to be retrained

Diane Jowers spent 28 years working in the casino industry.

In 2011, Jowers, of Atlantic City, decided she did not want to relocate to Las Vegas after working at Resorts, Showboat, Harrah’s, Sands and Tropicana.

“I saw the ad online,” said Jowers, 67, about working at the Atlantic City Contact Center, which occupies two floors of office space in The Claridge — a Radisson Hotel on Park Place. “I wanted to be employed with a company that was going to be here in Atlantic City, noncasino.”

Jowers was trained by Atlantic City Contact Center to handle outsourced calls for utility companies. She started working there in 2015 and is still there.

The Atlantic City Contact Center, the Atlantic County Workforce Development Board and One Stop Career Center in Pleasantville and the Ideal Institute of Technology in Mays Landing and Pleasantville are some of the institutions in Atlantic County offering to broaden the skills of South Jersey residents, allowing them to find job opportunities beyond the casinos.

Atlantic County Workforce Development Board receives about $10 million annually to provide workforce development services. Roughly 63 percent of those funds are used for training, including occupational training, job-readiness education, work experience, apprenticeship, job development and job placement.

In 2018, Atlantic City Electric launched a six-year, $6.5-million workforce development initiative to expand training programs for energy-related jobs and to educate the workforce needed to fill future energy jobs across the state.

The Atlantic City Contact Center has 110 employees with the expectation to be at 200 full-time employees by the end of this year, said John Ciaramella, contact center president.

Ciaramella is hoping to hear next month whether his company will receive $10 million in tax credits over a decade through the Grow NJ Program, which would help with employee compensation.

“The city needed to diversify its economy. We are trying to break the mold and say we are not just a one-horse town. We are not just a casino town,” said Ciaramella, who added his employees like the year-round aspect of working at the call center.

The Ideal Institute of Technology, a 501c3 nonprofit vocational school in Mays Landing, has grown during the same five years that the Atlantic City Contact Center has existed.

Ideal operates around the philosophy of “earn while you learn.” In some instances, youth and adults are able to earn money through workplace experience while acquiring the book knowledge to earn certifications. Ideal has 45 state-approved programs in six fields — appliance repair, tech center, studio, savings club, builders and virtually reality lab.

Robert Fash, 56, retired in June after being a mail carrier for 24 years in Lakehurst, Ocean County.

Fash developed an interest in computers later in life. Now, he has the time to study and take the CompTIA A+ entry-level computer certification course for personal computer service technicians at Ideal.

On a recent Wednesday, Fash sat in a smart classroom with Luis Castellon, 37, of Pleasantville, covering material in the CompTIA A+ Certification guide taught by instructor Raymond Sprouse.

“Within a month, I will be ready to go,” said Fash, who has been traveling from Barnegat Township for classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays since November.

Parents who have been working in the casinos for years are starting to come in because they are looking to do something different, said Rodrick L. Green, director of partnership development with Ideal.

Green said he and his business partner, Ren Parikh, are not necessarily against the casinos, but there is a technological industry out there the South Jersey labor market is not prepared for.

“A study said that in the year 2025, there are going to be jobs that they haven’t even created the training for yet,” Green said. “If you are not at the entry level of things, how will you qualify for that job in South Jersey?”

Ideal has received support from the Atlantic County Workforce Development Board, which provides its own on-the-job training.

Asia Drinkard, 22, of Pleasantville, has worked in retail. She also used to work the midnight shift at Wawa in Pleasantville and then would attend 7 and 8 a.m. classes at Atlantic Cape Community College.

Drinkard started certified nursing assistant training in November at Meadowview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Northfield. She is learning the proper procedures and protocols to assist those in need of nursing or rehabilitative care.

“With CNA, a lot of people just look at it for the money you make,” Drinkard said. “I feel like I wanted to come back and actually pursue my license because it is a great opportunity for me to pursue my career at such a young age.”

Drinkard is receiving her training from Paulette Mayo, RN, of the PRN Training Center LLC. PRN is a separate company that uses Meadowview for hands-on training and classroom time, said Michelle Savage, Meadowview’s nursing home administrator. Meadowview has been involved with the CNA training program for at least 20 years, Savage said.

“Many have started as a CNA and continued on to higher education and have becomes nurses,” Savage said. “It is particularly rewarding to see their hard work and dedication pay off and have them become a part of our team and the Meadowview family.”

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Community turns out for LGBTQ curriculum info session at Pinelands

LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — While many residents asked about opting out of a pilot program of the soon-to-be-mandated LGBTQ curriculum, Pinelands Regional school officials said that was not an option, but they made it clear they will make themselves available to answer any questions regarding the program.

“It’s impossible to opt out of the current culture that we live in,” Superintendent Melissa McCooley said, reiterating a phrase she used at last month’s school board meeting on the curriculum.

With more than 100 attendees at the community meeting in the gymnasium of the junior high Wednesday, representatives from Garden State Equality explained how the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum will be incorporated into lessons across all areas for eighth graders through the rest of the year in all 12 pilot districts.

“This is not a textbook with worksheets and things like that,” said Kate Okeson, co-founder and program director at Make it Better for Youth, which helped develop the curriculum.

Okeson said it’s about infusing LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — history and relevance into the lessons and content areas and “helping teachers script to expand or infuse their lessons with content that satisfies the letter and the spirit of the law.”

Pinelands Regional Junior High School was selected by the state as one of 12 schools, including Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, to participate in the pilot year. In September, the law will require all schools to include instruction that portrays the political, economic and social contributions of LGBTQ individuals across all content areas for middle and high school students.

“The reasons why we’re doing this is that LGBTQ youth need to be seen in the stories that we tell,” said Ashley Chiappano, safe school and community education manager at Garden State Equality. “We really believe that with the input of educators, we will do this in the right way not only for educators, but for students.”

Chiappano said the LGBTQ mandate is similar to the state’s mandates that schools incorporate black history and Holocaust curricula throughout the year. Teachers participating in the pilot program will have access through a closed website to the lessons, which are adaptable based on grade level.

“We’re providing a tool kit, and it’s up to each individual educator to adjust or adapt their lessons,” she said.

During the meeting, Okeson gave several examples of areas where the lessons can be infused, including reading books with themes that relate to overcoming stereotypes or highlighting the accomplishments of scientists or artists who are part of the LGBTQ community.

EHT school board debuts amended transgender student policy

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — With a state law requiring the district to take action and members of the community expressing concerns, the township Board of Education created a compromise in its latest version of the district’s proposed policy for transgender students that was debuted at Tuesday’s workshop meeting.

“There are cultural contributions that extend into all types of communities, those that look like mine and those that don’t,” Okeson said.

Many who packed the meeting Wednesday wore yellow buttons stating “Family Community and School, Not Special Interests” in silent opposition to the curriculum.

Whiting resident Kathy Stricchiola, who wore one of the buttons she said were handed out by a group of church members, including from Calvary Baptist in Tuckerton, said she was opposed to the curriculum.

One Ocean County man, who asked not to be named, said he is not part of the Pinelands Regional School District but attended to show his opposition to the curriculum.

“It’s just a matter of special interests,” the man said, adding kids should be educated on LGBTQ issues by their parents. “I don’t go to school and say, ‘Hey, kids, everyone must understand Christianity is a good thing.’”

Pinelands ninth-grade English teacher Shari Saks, an alumna of the district who is gay, said she was pleasantly surprised with the outcome of the meeting.

“I did think it was going to be a lot worse than it was, and I was really, really happy that it flowed so easily and went as well as it did,” Saks said.

She said having the inclusive curriculum in her home district was empowering.

“I didn’t come out until I was 35. I think a lot of me waiting so long was me growing up in a small town where being gay wasn’t necessarily as accepted as it could be in other places,” Saks said. “I’m really excited for the fact that this curriculum is not only going to allow the LGBTQ students to feel more acknowledged and accepted, but it’s also going to allow us to be more progressive as a school district.”

Despite many opposing the curriculum, the meeting was calm, and McCooley invited those with additional questions to contact her.

After the meeting, McCooley said she was happy with the turnout and stood behind the school’s decision to participate in the pilot.

According to a recent school climate survey, 17% of students did not feel safe at school because of issues related to their gender or sexuality, she said.

“It’s challenging because I respect their views,” she said of the religious community. “But we have to understand that the LGBTQ curriculum does exist and we have to create an inclusive environment for all our students.

“At the end of the day, we have to do what’s best for the students and the staff.”

The eighth-grade teachers have already begun incorporating some of the lessons, McCooley said, and have received positive feedback from students.

On Thursday, she met with a reverend from a local church and plans to meet with more church leaders to discuss their concerns.

Another community meeting is being planned for May.

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MCCOOLEY Melissa McCooley

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CRDA, Atlantic City push to clean up rooming houses

ATLANTIC CITY — There are more rooming houses and tenants in the city than are allowed by law, particularly in the Tourism District, and local officials are looking for ways to rectify the issue.

The “overabundance of rooming house units” is a deterrent to development and redevelopment in Atlantic City, according to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency with zoning and land use power in the Tourism District.

In some instances, the rooming houses also impact quality of life for neighbors and businesses because of the potential for criminal behavior and the subsequent drain on municipal resources, city officials said.

The CRDA and the city have each devised a way to deal with rooming houses that could improve the living conditions for those who live in them while simultaneously making some neighborhoods more attractive areas for development.

Mayor Marty Small Sr. has put together a code enforcement review board that will more aggressively target violators, including rooming house operators. The CRDA has proposed a conversion project for rooming houses that seeks to entice landlords and operators to either change the use of their properties, sell them or have them demolished.

“We’re here to help improve the housing stock in Atlantic City,” said CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty. “This (conversion plan) will give us another tool at our disposal to continue to convert these rooming houses into a better form of housing stock.”

Both the number of people occupying rooming houses in Atlantic City and their proximity to one another in certain neighborhoods violate city regulations, which mirror those found in the state’s Rooming and Boarding House Act.

An exact number of rooming houses in Atlantic City varies by agency. City records show there are 43 rooming houses, while state records from the Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards list 56 licensed operators. CRDA’s own inventory identifies 53 rooming houses in Atlantic City.

According to CRDA, only 30 of the city’s rooming houses have proper land-use approvals.

The city recently also has taken a stance against rooming houses that either violate public heath and safety standards or municipal codes. To date, 10 rooming houses have either been closed or demolished at the direction of the city, with some of the vacant lots being put up for public auction.

Small said both the conversion project — which he said he will vote in favor of as a CRDA board member — and the increased code enforcement will improve quality of life for residents and reduce the amount of public safety resources used by the city at some of those locations.

“I’m in favor of upgrading and converting those rooming houses to a higher standard of living for people, as well as supporting retail components,” he said.

Doherty said he would like to see some of the rooming houses transformed into mixed-use spaces, with residential and retail amenities.

The CRDA has already converted, or is in the process of converting, 13 rooming houses. The buildings have been converted to duplexes, single-family homes, apartments and commercial operations. The CRDA also recently revised land-use regulations in the Tourism District that limited conversion of existing buildings into single-family homes.

“We’re making it as easy as possible, through land use regulations, to convert these rooming houses,” he said. “And now, we are looking to supply the financial resources to support someone’s vision of changing these rooming houses.”

Residents of rooming houses have brought up concerns about being displaced if affordable living arrangements are reduced. The CRDA has said the conversion plan would include funding to assist displaced residents and the authority would work with social service agencies, such as Volunteers of America and Jewish Family Service, to help people find new homes.

A public hearing on the rooming house conversion project will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at the CRDA offices on Pennsylvania Avenue. The CRDA Board of Directors will likely consider the conversion project at the authority’s public meeting Feb. 18.

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Bill creating 'credentialing entity' for recovery homes passes Assembly committee

Lawmakers are looking to improve the safety and operation of what has become a critical component for many fighting their way out of substance abuse disorders.

That component, a safe place to do the work of recovery, may be affected by a bill that aims to create a voluntary certification system for recovery homes in New Jersey.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblymen John Armato and Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, passed the Assembly Human Services Committee on Monday.

The legislation is meant to ensure that people in recovery from addiction have accommodations and services that are up to a certain standard, and to create a clearer distinction between recovery homes and boarding houses, the two said in the release.

Recovery homes differ from boarding houses, or rooming houses, in that they provide supervision and support, not just a bed, Mazzeo said.

“The goal of this bill is to make it easier for sober living houses to operate in the state and continue the great work they have been doing thus far,” he said.

If passed, the bill would compel the state Department of Community Affairs to appropriate funds for a credentialing entity to issue certificates through on-site inspections for sober living homes that meet certain standards. The non-profit entity would also carry out a yearly recertification process and unannounced on-site inspections for organizations that opt in, as well as oversee criminal background checks and voluntary professional certification for administrators who work in the homes.

Atlantic City regulation of sober living homes looks reasonable

Sober living homes are halfway houses for addicts that are increasingly common as the opioid crisis continues. States, municipalities and even the federal government have been slow to enact standards and regulations for them. The dispute over what regulations are desirable reached Atlantic City recently, where a sober living house has opened in apparent defiance of a municipal ordinance.

The process would be voluntary. Municipalities, in turn, could create ordinances that allow only credentialed recovery homes to operate within city limits, said Charity Jeffries, chief of staff for Armato and Mazzeo.

Smaller cities with one or two recovery homes might be satisfied with their operation and want to avoid sticking them with the cost of credentialing, Mazzeo said. It is similar to a “pilot program” that can be adjusted as new concerns arise, he said.

Fraud was among the issues on their mind in outlining the credentialing system, Armato said.

There is the risk of “having someone come into a sober living home, setting them up with Medicaid or other insurance payments and then just letting the individual go in the wind and still collect that money,” Armato said. “Anywhere where people can see an easy dollar, it’s gonna happen. And this is why we need regulation.”

One aspect missing from the bill — limits on the number of homes allowed per municipality or neighborhood — could be a problem for Absecon Island, said Ventnor Commissioner Lance Landgraf.

His city has 23 recovery homes with 132 bedrooms, Landgraf said, and he regularly hears from residents about how their presence chokes on-street parking and tanks home values. He thinks Ventnor could reasonably sustain fewer than 10 sober living homes and is upset that local officials weren’t consulted before the bill moved through committee.

Landgraf said Tuesday he hasn’t had enough time to fully digest the bill, but on the surface he’s “not a fan.”

“There needs to be regulation on how many each town should max out at,” Landgraf said. “We’re a very dense population. Neighbors are very close to each other. ... Now, instead of just two to three people living in a house, you’ve got 12. Cars, noise, all the activities that go along with that many people in a home.”

Landgraf said he will meet with Armato and Mazzeo on Friday to discuss the bill.

“We’re not against people getting better. We’re not against that,” Landgraf said. “There has to be some limitations on what a community can absorb, and nobody is helping us with that, and we don’t think that that bill is helping us either.”

Mazzeo said the bill could be tweaked. Armato is confident the current bill will find bipartisan support in the full Assembly.

“I think this is a bill that will garner votes on both sides of the aisle,” Armato said. “I think this is giving individuals that second chance that we all need, and I think, once again, sober living facilities do an outstanding job in giving that pathway back into what we consider a normal life.”

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