I have never been more proud of both New Jersey’s public education system and my involvement with the Ocean City School District as board vice president than I am this school year. I say that even after last year when OCSD celebrated American sign language teacher Amy Andersen as the New Jersey Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the national title, Superintendent Kathleen Taylor as the 2018 Superintendent of the Year, and student Nora Faverzani as a New Jersey Association of Student Councils state officer. The source of my immense pride this year is Ocean City’s recognition as a Lighthouse District by the New Jersey Department of Education.
Created by former NJ DOE Commissioner Kimberley Harrington, Lighthouse Districts draw attention to schools that make significant progress closing achievement gaps across various subgroups. Those recognized districts are highlighted as beacons of success to help guide others toward similar progress. Harrington realized that simply rewarding schools that hit percentages of proficiency ignored real progress made to move students toward proficiency, even if they came up just shy of the benchmark. Rather than simply evaluating schools based on a few numbers, she looked at the bigger picture. By establishing the Lighthouse District recognition, she created opportunities to extract and share narratives of success so that N.J. schools could learn from each other and help all students succeed.
The DOE poured over tens of thousands of data points spanning a four-year period to determine which schools qualify as a Lighthouse District, and it names a new cohort of “Lighthouses” every other year. This year, Ocean City is one of only 11 districts statewide named a Lighthouse District. Each district has a different set of a challenges and different approaches to spark student achievement and close achievement gaps across all grade levels, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. This fact alone validates that our success closing achievement gaps is one to celebrate, because this is hard work, and there is no single formula for improving student performance.
We cannot pinpoint exactly what initiative had the greatest impact on student achievement at Ocean City. We started the Raider Ready program just last year to help pre-kindergarten students learn a new set of skills and gain familiarity with our district before entering kindergarten. We also started a Get Raider Ready for Algebra course to help students better prepare for Algebra I at the high school level. We run a Jumpstart summer enrichment program that provides targeted academic assistance in both ELA/literacy and mathematics to middle school students. We also regularly prioritize providing social and emotional support to our students and eliminating stigmas around mental health. Finally, our district piloted the AchieveNJ educator evaluation program that incorporated student achievement into the evaluation, and we continue today to make student achievement 50 percent of our educator evaluation.
We know that these efforts help us better educate and inspire our students, but we also know that they alone are not a solution. The truth is, it’s not one thing, it’s 100,000 things. It’s every employee at every level, it’s every parent reading at home, it’s every kid giving us his/her best. Our designation as a Lighthouse District is ultimately the result of our district-wide commitment to student success, across every age group, every demographic.
We intend to use our Lighthouse District designation as motivation to further inspire student achievement within our district. We also hope to use it to guide other districts toward finding creative and collaborative ways to ensure no child is left behind.
I commend former commissioner Harrington for developing the Lighthouse District recognition and current Commissioner Lamont Repollet for sustaining it, because in my opinion, every school across our state should make that same promise, regardless of state-mandated benchmarks: leave no child behind.
Jacqueline McAlister, of Ocean City, is vice president of the Ocean City School District Board of Education.